When I saw David Bowie in concert, twenty-odd years ago, he began performing “Space Oddity” halfway through the gig, after a big pause. “Ground Control to Major Tom” rang out, without any backing track, through the concert hall, and the crowd went wild. “Ground Control to Major Tom,” Bowie intoned once more, and then broke off, laughing. He had no intention of playing the song—and never did, for the rest of the night.
Some of that piss-taking, playful humor is evident in Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream, a documentary about Bowie made with the consent of his estate, which eschews traditional talking-heads-and-archive forms in favor of bold, allusive montage that seeks to convey an idea of Bowie rather than portray him accurately. Perhaps not quite enough of his slippery wit and irony is on display, however: Morgen’s viewpoint is one of rather sincere fandom. If you’re already fascinated by Bowie you will be fascinated by this film; if you aren’t (something which Morgen’s documentary doesn’t even seem to deem possible) you may find yourself tiring, finally, of the heart-eyes with which Moonage Daydream regards its subject.
Early on, Moonage Daydream stands out for its fresh outlook, presenting pristine live footage and gorgeously crisp clips of Bowie performances in conjunction with a phalanx of imagery, drawing on astronomy, cinema, docu-footage, and miscellaneous styles of animation in order to evoke the feel of Bowie’s music, and pin down even for a nano-second some of the evanescent mystery of his star persona. Morgen’s ebullient use of color is repeatedly evident in fleeting splashes of what could be fireworks, or splodges of paint, or living organisms through a lens, mutating and disappearing. There are segments of Bowie clips figuring a lunar eclipse; snatches of The Wizard of Oz, Top Hat and A Trip to the Moon; glimpses of Jackson Pollock and Basquiat; scenes of war, of troops parading; all of these things flirting and dancing with lesser-known or famous clips from Bowie’s back catalog, such as the famous news segment featuring a teenage girl crying because she missed meeting the singer, or Bowie mock-fellating his guitarist’s instrument. This pell-mell tumbling of influences and images conveys something heady and immersive, which has a similar effect to Todd Haynes’s take on Bob Dylan: namely, instead of trying to paint Bowie properly, the film is happy to refract and splinter him, drawing power from alluding rather than showing.
Morgen’s outlook, and the sheer chutzpah of his imagery, are welcome—but even here, it can be frustrating to see how the director cleaves to Bowie’s hits; how fully he buys into Bowie’s myth-making. In the first hour, the sheer amount of Bowie’s pronouncements about his philosophy, his ideas about art, his assessment of whether he is faking it or sincere, can be exhausting. Contrary to the glittering way the movie views each of Bowie’s dictums, this stuff isn’t endlessly fascinating, especially if you aren’t invested in the legend of Bowie. Rather, Bowie’s pronouncements, and his charmingly flippant parrying of the ignorant questions of interviewers, seem like the playful, clearly insincere braggadocio of a young rapscallion still finding himself. Indeed, Bowie himself later on punctures his earlier rhetoric once he has found contentment in his personal life, noting wryly that he is sick of playing roles—this rather undermines some of the myth-building of the earlier section.
For all Moonage Daydream’s bravura filmmaking, I was drawn to more downbeat moments in the film that felt under-explored: for instance, it seems unimaginable that Bowie had any relatives at all, let alone a brother called Terry. He is alluded to here, touchingly, but this film is not particularly interested in the personal, as much as it seeks to explore the mythos, the otherworldliness and iconography of the Bowie persona. Similarly, the story of Bowie’s mother, dismissed here as somebody who had trouble connecting with people, feels like an avenue for exploration too quickly cordoned off. Ultimately, the film is most touching when it gets close to something real, as when Bowie drops this devastating line: “I would do things to prove I had some substance, when in fact I didn’t.” Moonage Daydream gets close to alluding to the fact that Bowie himself might not be all that interesting per se—rather, he is transparently an awkward person, taking on different characters and constantly expressing a lack of connection with other people because of what may be a certain void within himself.
As the film drags toward its conclusion, Bowie the man seems to come to the fore, and the person we see here is simple: somebody who is content—who wishes to fill his days with artistic creation, and who loves his wife very much. Accordingly, the documentary begins to falter here, because it takes the different stages of his life to lead its imagery: the modus operandi becomes more conventional, we start to see repeated footage, and the rhythm begins to suffer, because the God-complex early Bowie, for all that he was a put-on, offered more opportunities for dreaming and wonder.
Moonage Daydream could do with a bit of an edit, and the perspective it trains on Bowie is rather too unctuous: Bowie, as a cultural figure, could easily withstand a more critical parsing than Morgen offers up. It’s notable that there’s almost nothing in the way of sociopolitical context here to make sense of Bowie, but rather a deeply subjective, dreamy take on him as a figure, which is necessarily limited in its compass. Nevertheless, Morgen has mostly pulled off an exciting, kinetic accompaniment to the idea of Bowie, to what he stands for, whose profusion of sensory delights often makes most other musical documentaries feel laborious and earthbound.