'Cobain: Montage of Heck' director Brett Morgen turns David Bowie's life, music, performances and impact into a dazzling kaleidoscopic documentary that's as shapeshifting and boundary-pushing as the icon himself.
September 15, 2022
Ground control to major masterpiece: Moonage Daydream, Brett Morgen's kaleidoscopic collage-style documentary about the one and only David Bowie, really makes the grade. Its protein pills? A dazzling dream of archival materials, each piece as essential and energising as the next, woven into an electrifying experience that eclipses the standard music doco format. Its helmet? The soothing-yet-mischievous tones of Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane/The Thin White Duke/Jareth the Goblin King himself, the only protective presence a film about Bowie could and should ever need and want. The songs that bop through viewers heads? An immense playlist covering the obvious — early hit 'Space Oddity', the hooky glam-rock titular track, Berlin-penned anthem 'Heroes', the seductive 80s sounds of 'Let's Dance' and the Pet Shop Boys-remixed 90s industrial gem 'Hallo Spaceboy', to name a few — as well as deeper cuts. The end result? Floating through a cinematic reverie in a most spectacular way.
When Bowie came to fame in the 60s, then kept reinventing himself from the 70s until his gone-too-soon death in 2016, the stars did look very different — he did, constantly. How do you capture that persistent shapeshifting, gender-bending, personal and creative experimentation, and all-round boundary-pushing in a single feature? How do you distill a chameleonic icon and musical pioneer into any one piece of art, even a movie that cherishes each of its 135 minutes? In the first film officially sanctioned by Bowie's family and estate, Morgen knows what everyone that's fallen under the legend's spell knows: that the man born David Jones, who'd be 75 as this doco hits screens if he was still alive, can, must and always has spoken for himself. The task, then, is the same as the director had with the also-excellent Cobain: Montage of Heck and Jane Goodall-focused Jane: getting to the essence of his subject and conveying what made him such a wonder by using the figure himself as a template.
Nothing about Bowie earns an easy description. Nothing about Bowie, other than his stardom, brilliance and impact, sat or even stood still for too long. Driven by themes and moods rather than a linear birth-to-death chronology, Moonage Daydream leaps forward with that same drive to ch-ch-change, the same yearning to keep playing and unpacking, and the same quest for artistry as well. Taking its aesthetic approach from its centre of attention means peppering in psychedelic pops, bursts of colour, neon hues, and mirrored and tiled images — because it really means making a movie that washes over all who behold its dance, magic, dance. That's the reaction that Bowie always sparked, enchanting and entrancing for more than half a century. In successfully aping that feat, Morgen's film is as immersive as an art installation. Exhibition David Bowie Is has already toured the world, including a 2015 stint Down Under in Melbourne; Moonage Daydream sits partway between that and a Bowie concert.
This gift of sound and vision is as glorious as that gig-meets-art concept sounds — and yes, live footage beams and gleams throughout the documentary. Among the snippets of interviews, smattering of music videos, melange of clips from cinema touchstones that reverberate on Bowie's wavelength in one way or another, and scenes from his own acting career on-screen and onstage, how could it not? During his five years, fittingly, spent making Moonage Daydream, Morgen had access to the original concert masters, from which he spliced together his own mixes using alternative angles. Zooming back to the androgynous space-alien Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars tour is exhilarating, including when the feature's eponymous song explodes. Jumps to the 90s, to the Outside and Earthling tours, resonate with awe of a more grounded but no less vibrant kind. The Serious Moonlight segments, hailing from the 80s and all about pale suits and glistening blonde hair, see Bowie relaxing into entertainer mode — and, amid discussions about his wariness about making upbeat tunes, mastering that like everything else.
When Bowie takes to the stage in Moonage Daydream, it plays as a concert film, in fact, even if there's always a new vintage chat with the man himself, compilation of movie images or video from one of his singles to swiftly follow in this musical mashup. The entire viewing experience is designed to feel like an event and a show; seeing it on the biggest possible screen, and sitting close enough to it so that all that's in front of you is that Bowie-adorned screen, is heartily recommended. Enlisting Bowie's longtime producer Tony Visconti, Moonage Daydream has the sound, not just the soundtrack, to both match and evoke that like-you're-there sensation. (Or, to make its audience feel like Bowie's here in the cinema in front of you.) Those tunes have also been remastered, aided by audio engineer Paul Massey (an Oscar-winner for Bohemian Rhapsody), and they're given the thunderous volume they deserve.
Mesmerising fans comes easily in this Bowie mosaic's frames and tunes, with the doco edited as well as written and directed by Morgen; freak out in a Moonage Daydream indeed. For the casually interested, the film uses its style as part of its substance, and as an immersion technique — a tactic that Baz Luhrmann's Elvis also used in a just-as-vivid and expressively stitched-together manner. Understanding by feeling: that's the 2022 wave of modern music icon love for viewers to fall for, although Moonage Daydream and Elvis are clearly different features. The pair's subjects can be heroes, and that's a fact, and their directors want viewers to absorb why beyond merely being told. Among the time-defying jumps backwards and forwards throughout his life — channelling his always-futuristic air — Bowie's narration isn't about singing his own praises, instead flowing with insights into his processes, loves and challenges, and why he kept seeking the new and the bold. Hearing it as the movie's music and visuals work their magic is as revelatory as it's meant to be.
Get your 'lectric eye on this and you'll slide through a multi-sensory ode — a multimedia extravaganza — that also includes looks at the Starman's paintings, which he was cautious about unveiling to the world; hops from the Brixton of his birth to his Los Angeles stint, and to his Berlin period and his tours through Asia; and buzzes with delighted-to-the-point-of-anxiety 70s-era crowds. Naturally, a refusal to be easily pinned down, to stop pushing itself and stop transforming also echoes, again paralleling Bowie himself. Morgen teases one song then layers in another, or sets up a segue but veers elsewhere: he is the propulsive documentary's DJ and he loves being playful. Every choice and surprise chimes with the utter Bowieness of it all, and how indefinable Bowie was and still is. Moonage Daydream is noticeably light on his last few decades, and on the reasons he stopped unleashing his inimitable presence upon stages, but perhaps that's another movie's job; this one is wondrous and wonderful anyway.