‘Moonage Daydream’ Isn’t Just a Bowie Doc — It’s a Trip Through the Thin White Duke’s Mind

·6 min read
Bowie_R2_complete_211126_17js_g_r709.175058C - Credit: Neon Pictures
Bowie_R2_complete_211126_17js_g_r709.175058C - Credit: Neon Pictures

It could have been a straightforward documentary about the David Bowie story — but who wants straightforward when it comes to Bowie? Instead, Moonage Daydream is a gloriously innovative trip into the Thin White Duke’s mind, written, directed, and edited by Brett Morgen. He specializes in portraits of twisted artists, whether that means Hollywood mogul Robert Evans in The Kid Stays In The Picture or Kurt Cobain in Montage of Heck. But his latest goes even deeper, a full immersion in the gaudiest, glammiest of rock-star lives. In one of the film’s great interview clips, Bowie sums up his musical sensibility with the words, “Everything is rubbish, and all rubbish is wonderful.” That’s the approach of Moonage Daydream in a nutshell.

It’s a groundbreaking approach to the music doc. There’s no narrator, no talking heads. It’s just a montage of Bowie footage, interviews, and various versions of his music, remixed by Morgen into a constantly shifting rush of sound and vision. The filmmaker has gone through years of archival footage, with the cooperation of the Bowie estate. Some of these clips are obscure; many more are world-famous stunts of rock-star megalomania. But Morgen’s approach to the documentary format is essentially: I am a DJ, I am what I play.

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The film doesn’t dig into Bowie’s personal life, because this is a biography of the visible Bowie, the public Bowie, the one who loved to say things like “I’m a collector and I seem to collect personalities.” Moonage Daydream doesn’t attempt to cover his whole musical evolution. (Neither the words “Tin” nor “Machine” get mentioned.) But the audio collage is a revelation into Bowie’s music, mixing and matching musical bricolage with a fan’s ear for the details, as remixed for the film by Tony Visconti.

It’s a fitting approach for the subject, who always saw himself as a blank screen, a canvas for the audience’s desires and fears. “The artist is strictly a figment of people’s imagination,” he says in the film. “We’re the original false prophets. We are the gods.” The Dame saw the rock star’s mission as seducing his way into the public imagination, changing the way people saw themselves and each other. As he quips, “I would do things to prove I had some emotional substance, when in fact I didn’t.”

There’s a great 1973 TV clip with the U.K. chat-show host Russell Harty, who seems disarmed by this guileless creature all dolled up on his couch. “What were you doing before you hit the bright headlights?” Harty asks. “Were you a nobody who suddenly thought, ‘Jesus, I must get into the scene by some other way?’” Bowie gives an innocent schoolboy smile. “I’ve never asked Jesus for a thing,” he says. “It was all my own initiative.”

Moonage Daydream is full of breathtaking live performances, especially from the 1978 Stage tour, with the toughest band of his life. We see him onstage in the early Seventies, peacocking in his Ziggy Stardust finery, with the Spiders From Mars. There’s a laugh-out-loud montage of shots of Bowie executing the same stage move, over and over — the famous bit where he drops to his knees in front of axeman Mick Ronson, and essentially fellates his guitar. There’s also a ferocious jam on “The Jean Genie” where he leads the crowd in a sing-along of “Love Me Do.”

Some of the funniest scenes come from Cracked Actor, the classic 1973 BBC doc made by Alan Yentob. We see Bowie in the back of a Hollywood limo, coked to the gills, sniffing and twitching, painted and powdered until he looks uncannily like Rue McLanahan from The Golden Girls. There’s another superb Yentob moment, from a late Seventies interview when he asks Bowie if maybe, just maybe, radical experiments like his electronic Berlin trilogy might take a toll on his commercial success. Bowie laughs merrily and replies, “No shit, Sherlock.”

Morgen really sets the scene where the film reaches the late Eighties, the most dismal era for Bowie, musically and personally. We hear Dennis Davis’ drum track from “Sound and Vision” flow into the isolated vocal from “Absolute Beginners,” then into a swirl of deeply unpleasant late-Eighties interviews, where Bowie gets grumpy over the fact that he’s making lousy new music for the cash. (“I’m sorry, but I’ve never found that poverty means purity,” he sniffs, looking miserable.) There’s his Pepsi ad with Tina Turner. His Glass Spiders tour. Some footage where he wanders alone through a shopping mall in Asia, riding the escalator alone late at night, as if he’s got nowhere else to go. A scene where he plays a vampire in The Hunger, insisting, “I’m a young man. Do you understand? I’m a young man!” It’s a horrifyingly vivid way to evoke the claustrophobic torpor of his Eighties success.

But it builds gorgeously into the film’s most emotionally powerful moment: Bowie stands in a hallway, with the hushed piano from “Word on a Wing.” Then the elevator doors slide open, just as we hear him say the words, “When I met Iman…” (This moment was the one damn song that made me break down and cry-y-y-y.)

Like most Bowie overviews, the film skips over his Nineties artistic rejuvenation, which started after he married Iman. There’s a fantastic opening blast of his 1995 techno trip “Hello Spaceboy,” but nary a hint of the soulful adult modern-love songs he wrote for his wife in the following years, on underrated albums like Earthling, Heathen, Reality, or The Last Day. (At least I didn’t say Hours — but seriously, “Thursday’s Child” though.)

So much of the story in Moonage Daydream comes down to Bowie’s face—he studied his own mirror moves like he’d studied Little Richard’s dancing or Eric Dolphy’s sax. So this man was always ready for his close-up. There are indelible images of Bowie posing in the “Life on Mars” video, wearing the famous turquoise “ice blue” suit. As the video’s director Mick Rock said, this is a suit that Bowie wore exactly once in his life, for just a few minutes. But that’s all it took for him to make this suit part of the world’s dream life ever since. It’s a one-of-a-kind story. Moonage Daydream reminds you why the ideal of a Bowie biopic is always doomed to fall short, because there’s only one actor cracked enough to inhabit this role. And that’s the man who lived it night and day for all those golden years.

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