Dir. Brett Morgan
Reviewed by Nicholas Goldwin
As one of the greatest shapeshifters in the expansive history of rock music, it seems only fitting that the documentary with David Bowie as its subject never seems content to express the trials, tribulations and artistic triumphs of Bowie in any one fixed way. This is expressed through the film in its alternations between rare footage of early concerts and interviews, expressive animated renderings of the science-fiction imagery laden throughout Bowie’s oeuvre and various examples of Bowie’s own artwork, both visual and musical. In doing this, Morgen allows the true scope of Bowie’s career as an artist and innovator to be appreciated by the audience in a truly all-encompassing way. Yet despite the astounding variety of ways in which Bowie is portrayed in Moonage Daydream, there is nonetheless a disarming absence of any significant insight or depth given to Bowie as an individual. This makes the film’s attempt to give Bowie himself — the man, the individual — the spotlight seem lacklustre in execution, in that Morgen can’t seem to help but identify him as anything other than an icon.
This isn’t director Brett Morgen’s first foray into documenting the life of a rock legend; 2015’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck proved to be a humanising portrayal of one of the most fundamentally misunderstood figures not only in rock music, but in the entire collective canon of popular culture. Here, in Moonage Daydream, Morgen leans on some of the same story-telling techniques used in his earlier documentary: the melting pot of live-action commentary, animation and instances of the subject’s own artwork help provide a multifaceted approach to prevent the film from becoming an exploitative post-Morgen tell-all. This instead allows the respective subjects of both documentaries to speak for themselves, an unusual if even rare allowance for two artists whose legacies now lie at the whim of perversion and distortion as a result of their deaths. Fortunately, Morgen seems content in the fact that no such infringement need affect Bowie’s legacy. Instead, Morgen lets Bowie himself recall the critical moments of inspiration, intrigue and innovation which allowed him to construct the various sonic and visual creations that brought him international acclaim.
It is fitting in this regard that the film opens with a concert from Bowie centred around an early appearance from his alter-ego, the androgynous extraterrestrial Ziggy Stardust, whose ensemble and glam-rock trappings have proved to be the most enduring iconography out of all Bowie’s discography. By choosing to start the film with this concert, Morgen appears to be reminding us that what is now considered hallowed ground in the annals of musical was once merely soil awaiting fertilisation. This concert serves to ground Bowie’s origins (and thus his entire artistic trajectory) firmly in a relatable reality, one which continues to inspire, even sanction, artists throughout the world to put themselves forward in new, unusual and strangely discomforting ways, and to find in their own unconventional expression an audience in readied wait. Bowie broke boundaries in terms of what music, storytelling and performing could accomplish. He even manages to contribute towards the conversation surrounding conventional gender presentation with his many flirtations with androgyny throughout his glam rock years. It is a profoundly reassuring and humbling entry point into the film, serving as a note of encouragement to the audience that no sound, image or idea can ever truly exist in a vacuum and stay unappreciated forever.
However, Morgen swiftly falls into errors of storytelling that often befall those who attempt to retell the life of any major figure in popular culture, namely an absence of even-handedness. Like the technical components the two films have in common, Morgen’s approach to telling Bowie’s story also has a precedent in Montage of Heck. It can be said that the latter documentary perhaps leant too heavily into the warning signs of Kurt Cobain’s eventual suicide, in terms of peripheral factors from his adolescence and the more immediate warning signs shortly beforehand. As a result, Montage of Heck was criticised for facilitating (and potentially romanticising) Cobain’s image as a tortured soul destined to have his life cut tragically short, and therefore ignoring the times in his life where he was legitimately content to be writing and playing music. The aforementioned lack of equal status given to both the positive and negative parts of the subject’s life seems to continue with Moonage Daydream, albeit in the opposite direction. With this film, Morgen seems content to plunge the viewer firmly into the realm of mystique and wonder, a summation of the artistic mythos that Bowie imposed upon his music and upon himself. This results in a much more free-flowing soar through a life spent being creatively influenced and in turn influencing rock and roll in myriad ways, helping to pave the way for the sonic and conceptual playfulness that would later become hallmarks of some of the greatest music of the 20th and 21st centuries. All of this contributes perfectly well to Bowie as an icon, but Bowie as the person remains hugely underrepresented.
This absence of depth perhaps rears its ugly head with this point of contention: Morgen can assemble as much archival footage and as many remaining instances of Bowie’s visual artworks as he likes, but the absence of any other perspective besides that of Bowie’s does render the documentary somewhat lacking in any kind of major narrative introspection. A career synopsis is well and good, made all the greater by Bowie’s own personal insight and retrospective, but what exactly are we as an audience learning about him that we can’t learn from his Wikipedia page? Morgen’s attempt to personify Bowie as anything other than the sum total of his influences and works comes up somewhat short. Notably, the personal difficulties summarily mentioned above are referenced to a disappointingly small degree throughout the film (his second wife of twenty-four years, Iman, has perhaps less than 5 minutes of time devoted to her throughout the entire film, and any mention of his children is practically entirely absent), rendering the humanisation element of the documentary feeling largely incomplete. This is all-the-more surprising when it is clearly visible how much effort was put into creating as full a picture of Bowie’s life and career. All of this derives from what I can only assume was Morgen’s best efforts to give the audience an authentic look at the “real” David Bowie, given variations of the phrase “never-before-seen” plastered throughout the promotional material for the film. One can only glean that both the filmmaker seems to love Bowie so much that he wasn’t willing to share much more than what was already public knowledge about him.
The longevity of any icon’s legacy is perhaps best measured by their ability to connect to their audience, i.e., anybody who has felt touched, moved, inspired or emboldened by the content that was put out there. Said content is firmly on display here, but Bowie’s music was always tinged by emotion, now matter how much the conceptual glamour dazzled the audience and satisfied them enough to not ponder the song any further. Please do not be mistaken; Morgen does not do Bowie a disservice, as he honours his artistic prowess and wish for greater individual growth through his creative endeavours. Nonetheless, after having left the cinema I was still in want of knowing the man, rather than the mere myth of him.
New to the trade, though not to Cinema, Nicholas Goldwin is currently Riot Material’s London-based Film Critic.