The music documentary and biopic are well-established forms in the film industry. These two genres weaponize cross-media loyalties to music icons and find great critical and financial success as a result; “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) and “Rocketman” (2019) are recent examples of the music biopic commercial/Oscar vehicle. Classic music docs like “Gimme Shelter” and “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is” (both from 1970) set the genre formula of narratives constructed through tour footage, childhood photos and interviews with music “experts” and historians, often charting trite “rise-and-fall” narratives. That being said, forget those preconceptions with director Brett Morgen’s “Moonage Daydream” (2022); this movie about influential performance and visual artist David Bowie is dense, hallucinatory and consciously nonconformist to its genre trappings. Morgen dispenses with third-party testimonials, opting for archival footage of Bowie himself in interviews and concert performances in addition to abstract symbolic footage created by Morgen for the film.
As Bowie has been the Martian descending upon Earth, this film has descended upon the film landscape in alien glory; a sorely-needed tonal and artistic departure. During “Moonage Daydream,” often we’ll hear Bowie’s voice while seeing a kaleidoscopic tapestry of cuts Morgen assembled from other movies, such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920), “Nosferatu” (1922), “Metropolis” (1927), “Fantasia” (1940), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) and “Blade Runner” (1982). Bowie’s beautifully tortured, angsty acting career is also exhibited in short scenes from “Labyrinth” (1986), “The Hunger” (1983), “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) and “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983). Morgen casts magic upon this rich tapestry of clips with his usage of visual effects to portray relevant themes and ideas in Bowie’s music and life. He marks each new epoch in Bowie’s career with a shift in directorial style, whether it be the hazy nebulae of color on grainy film in the Ziggy Stardust years or Pollock-esque explosions of neon paint during his late ’70s Berlin era.
As mesmerizing as this “Daydream” is, it’s no mere technical exercise. Especially in the first hour, Morgen (and Bowie, in the archival interviews used for the movie) engage in a fascinating exploration of philosophical and metaphysical issues. Both ponder the formation of identity, the use of artistic expression as both therapy and a defensive shield, the interdisciplinary nature of spiritual manifestation and the relationship between audience and performer as well as between life experience and art. The dizzying array of “Sound and Vision,” to use the title of a prominently-featured Bowie song, is at times overwhelming. The movie’s first half is so deep and immersive that it doesn’t even feel like a documentary but rather a heady philosophical exploration. In the second half, the movie “falls to earth” (to quote the name of a 1976 Bowie movie) and into some of the expected tropes of the music documentary genre. We see Bowie in Berlin in the late ’70s, talking about the motivations behind his seminal work there, and then a debate among fans and cognoscenti in the early ’80s about whether he sold out with the 1983 album “Let’s Dance.” Bowie has the last word in the film, of course, expressing that his sonic shift was meant to create joyful music that inspired happiness in his fans and in himself. The film’s second half, marked by Bowie’s changing sound, still retains the exceptional editing and genre-subverting footage composition of the first half but scales back from an examination of the ideology underscoring Bowie’s art to an examination of the man himself.
On top of the virtuoso editing (which I believe is a shoo-in for Academy recognition), the movie explores compelling ideas regarding Bowie’s influential and early adoption of a genderfluid appearance and presentation. In archival footage, an interviewer asks Bowie whether his huge platform footwear is men’s or women’s, or “bisexual” shoes, to which Bowie memorably responds, “They’re shoe-shoes, silly!” While “Moonage Daydream” does not address Bowie’s actual sexuality (he stated he was bisexual in the ’70s, and both of his marriages were to women), Bowie used his artistic prominence to help normalize the idea of cross-dressing, asexuality, androgyny and gender fluidity for a broad audience. Morgen digs deep into this element and celebrates what might be Bowie’s most important legacy: using his status as an iconoclast and provocateur to tear down barriers in gender presentation and create a more representative society.
The movie also delves surprisingly deep into the star’s personal life, even for seasoned Bowie fans. It explains that his brother had schizophrenia, which resulted in Bowie using multimedia artistic pursuits (fine art, screenwriting, theater and film acting, poetry and music) to stave off his fear of hereditary mental illness. Morgen frames Bowie’s pursuits as a practice of art for self-healing, suggesting that Bowie moved into a place of happiness through immersion in self-expression. We also learn that Bowie was an international traveler, curious about foreign cultures and artistic stylings—both Bowie and the viewer spend time traveling Japan, learning the music and cultural customs, and studying under traditional Gamelan musicians in Indonesia.
And then there’s the music. For Bowie’s acolytes, there has been an enormous need for this film, as the artist was hesitant to allow his music’s use in movies, a position adopted by his estate since his death in 2016. For that reason, previous Bowie-inspired biopics, such as Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) and the recent “Stardust” (2020) have lacked the much-needed spark of Bowie’s music. Morgen remedies this problem with the use of dozens of songs from his enormous catalog and enthralling archival concert footage from the ’70s and ’80s. For Bowie fans, the use of music, especially in the context of such a rich film, is mindblowing.
“Moonage Daydream” is an easy recommendation for me, even if you’re not (yet) a Bowie fan. The movie depicts consequential themes with great virtuosity and largely avoids the linear narrative and hagiography that plague musical documentaries. If you can’t see “Moonage Daydream” in local theaters now, it will not only stream on HBO Max in 2023, but you might be able to catch the film in a return to theaters this spring if it gets the Oscar nominations I feel it deserves.