Brett Morgen Knows That His David Bowie Doc, Moonage Daydream, Is a Great Drug Movie

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The post Brett Morgen Knows That His David Bowie Doc, Moonage Daydream, Is a Great Drug Movie appeared first on Consequence.

Moonage Daydream, a cinematic trip into the psyche and legacy of the iconic David Bowie, has been out in theaters for a week now, and director Brett Morgen confirms that mind-altering substances are being enjoyed in those theaters. “It’s happening a lot,” he tells Consequence via Zoom, a few days after the unconventional documentary’s IMAX premiere. “I’m having people come up to me at the end of screenings lit and tripped out.”

Officially authorized by the Bowie estate, Moonage Daydream uses decades of archival footage to craft a visually-driven look at Bowie as an artist, from the Ziggy Stardust days to the more grounded, yet still ethereal, man he eventually became.

Given the beautiful visual soundscapes designed by Morgan, blending animation and music and color to capture the essence of Bowie’s work, he doesn’t seem surprised by the idea that people might consider it a great movie to watch on drugs. “I like to think most of my films work well in that regard,” he says. “They have music and a lot of images and they’re very densely layered, so you can extract new meanings upon multiple viewings.”

Of course, you don’t need to be on drugs to enjoy Moonage Daydream. “What a lot of people are saying is it gives you that effect,” he says. “I think that film does have that sort of intoxicating quality to it. So I think that’s why it may work very well in that regard. If you want to turn your brain off and just allow the film to swallow you, that can happen. There’s an invitation for that. If you want to get lost in David, you know, his philosophizing, I would imagine in a heightened state that can also get very deep.”

The rest of our conversation, transcribed below and edited for clarity, gets at least a little deep, as Morgen reveals what footage he tried and failed to include in the project, how he approached bringing in details about Bowie’s personal life, and how he feels about the film’s impressive theatrical release. (He did a little dance in his chair, when that came up.)

It seems like this was an amazing opportunity to dig into the Bowie archives and play with all this other archival footage. Was there stuff you couldn’t find or couldn’t use for whatever reason?

The one thing that I searched endlessly for were outtakes for The Man Who Fell to Earth. And when you’re searching for something, and someone says no, the natural instinct is to think well, then I need to try a different avenue. If you think about it, there’s an infinite amount of avenues one can pursue. And so, or, at least that’s how I view it. So we spent years trying to call the families of people involved, anyone we could find, until we finally surrendered.

In general, what went into the process of figuring out what of Bowie’s film work to incorporate?

I went into the project with a feeling that the film was performative. And by that, I mean, it was really not about David Jones, but about “Bowie the artist,” and all art, to me, has an ingrained timestamp, if you will. You can view performance through the lens of a document of that moment in time. So I approached David’s film work in films like Man Who Fell To Earth and The Hunger not so much as scenes of David performing — although everything in the film is David performing — but to illustrate ideas and dialogues that David was talking about.

Oftentimes the intersection of David’s creative and personal life were quite intertwined in terms of, you know, his decisions as to why he took film roles, so I think there’s a seamless blend or transition from David Bowie in a “documentary” moment to him in a clip from Man That Fell To Earth when you hear him talk about his parents.

The film is so focused on his career, and his art, to the point where I was genuinely a bit surprised by the section about his relationship with Iman. What was key for you in terms of figuring out when to bring in personal details like that?

The film is very much about how, as an artist, David has to evolve to a place where he doesn’t have to physically put himself in harm’s way, if you will, or run into the fire to create. And that’s sort of the narrative of the film when he meets Iman — he’s arrived at that point in his life. So up to that point, in order to create his music, as he says in the film, he couldn’t allow love into his life. He needed to ornamentalize it, to sacrifice himself for his art.

So he wouldn’t allow himself to have a home, he wouldn’t allow himself to settle down, he wouldn’t allow himself to get comfortable in a musical genre. But after he met Iman, as far as I’m concerned… The movie’s not me editorializing David’s discography but I think he produced some of his greatest music from ’95 to the end. It’s not in the film because the film was not my playlist of Bowie music, it’s music that I thought would tell a story, and so I think in many ways, it’s, you know, you can strip it all down.

It is a love story. But it’s love in the abstract. It’s not about this particular person, because I don’t provide much information about who [Iman] is any more than I do about who Mom and Dad are. They’re sort of abstractions.

The concept of abstraction is really interesting in this context, because when you’re presenting these big ideas around Bowie as abstracts, it leads the audience to bring their own projections to it.

That’s what David Bowie does, he invites projection. The more you listen to Bowie, the less you know David Jones, the more you know about yourself. And you know yourself and I know myself, and we each get a different message from it. That’s not an accident. That’s not a byproduct of the work. That’s how the work is designed. That’s how Moonage was designed, using the same sort of ideas of trying to invite a level of participation.

It’s not as aggressive as, let’s say, Brechtian distanciation, that sort of level of participation. But David was always great at taking some of these ideas and art that were in the sort of underground and making them pop. From the very beginning, as he talks around the film during the Ziggy period, he talks about having the audience participate.

Something that stands out in the interview footage, as well as him just talking about himself, is a lot of him referring to himself as a writer. From your perspective, was Bowie talking about himself as a writer of song lyrics and songs? Or do you feel like that aspect of his creative work was encompassing a lot of other elements?

I think he might have been evoking the romantic, nomadic idea of a writer, as someone who travels the world and observes. Because really, that’s what he did for a great period. In my mind, he’s more of a cultural anthropologist, you know, or an artist whose work can be viewed through the lens of cultural anthopology to provide us with a kind of deeper understanding of who we were as a culture during the time he walked the earth.

Moonage Daydream Director Interview David Bowie
Moonage Daydream Director Interview David Bowie

Moonage Daydream (NEON)

Bowie’s music is of course the center of the film, but there’s at least one instance of you using a non-Bowie track — Philip Glass’s “The Light” — and I’m curious about that inclusion.

Well, the younger version of myself would have never allowed that to happen, because of a lack of cohesiveness — because the idea was to have David’s music score the film from top to bottom. I put that music on because I was screening through a two-hour set of MOS dailies, and I just wanted something to listen to while I did it that wasn’t going to be disruptive. To be completely candid with you, I didn’t bring that into my editing system, someone in my building must brought that music into the thing.

So I saw Philip Glass, and I love Philip’s music, and I threw it on the piece and it worked like a charm. That was something I had to learn, wrestling with this film, was that it’s OK — if it feels right, it’s fine. You know, art’s not perfect.

Moonage Daydream is getting such a remarkable IMAX release for a documentary of this type. Could you talk a little bit about what went into making that possible?

Listen, this is like luck is when opportunity meets preparation. It’s not an accident. I just didn’t know where we would be culturally when the film came out, because we were cutting it during the pandemic. But this was a film that from conception was designed to be a theatrical experience. And in the lead up to the film, I used that word so much that it could be parody. It was parodied to my face on several occasions like, “this is not a book, it’s an experience, I get it.”

I had to say it until I was blue in the face, but what’s so rewarding right now is now I don’t have to say it anymore. Everybody else is saying it. Last night I went from Century City to Burbank to Hollywood, and we had packed theaters all over L.A. on a Tuesday night. People over 50 coming in with kids who are taking shrooms and having a great time — or maybe the 50-year-olds are taking shrooms, and the younger ones aren’t.

But it’s really exciting. It’s exciting to see people taking it on its own terms. And responding to it. Both the spectacle and the light, and the messaging of the film — it’s cool to know that you can make a film ostensibly sort of by yourself, a little arts and crafts project that I spent seven years working on, and then have people respond so passionately. I’ve been doing this a long time, but this is very exciting to observe.

Moonage Daydream is in wide release now.

Brett Morgen Knows That His David Bowie Doc, Moonage Daydream, Is a Great Drug Movie
Liz Shannon Miller

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