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David Bowie expresses his conviction that people always use bits and pieces of the world around them to construct their own existence in the captivating “Moonage Daydream” by Brett Morgen. This fragmentation undoubtedly influenced Bowie’s approach to his music as well as how he moved around the world. It also serves as the guiding principle for Morgen’s film, which rejects the conventional “music bio-doc” framework by emphasizing experience over knowledge. Why develop a movie that tries to fit Bowie in an impossible box when his decisions as a musician and symbol frequently defied easy explanation? Why not just ask those who knew or cared about him in interviews to try and explain his significance to the 20th century? To create something that doesn’t bother to explain Bowie as much as to channel his energy into a new form, Morgen instead depends on picture, music, and editing. It is an incredibly ambitious film. It shouldn’t function. That it does seems like a small miracle.
In that he isn’t interested in chronology, Morgen toys with one of the most conventionally predictable parts of the music documentary right from the start of his movie. He starts out with “Hallo Spaceboy,” a fantastic song from 1995’s It’s over archival video of Bowie from the Ziggy Stardust era and the fans who looked like him and wept when they couldn’t shake his hand. This is one of the few scenes that Morgen returns to later in the movie, indicating that he deems it vital. Scenes from sci-fi B-movies, Bowie doing makeup, and what appear to be vintage home movies are intercut with the fan footage. It’s a fantastic opening tune to this cinematic concert since it creates an almost overwhelming atmosphere. We typically go into music documentaries expecting biographical information and soundbites, but Morgen isn’t immediately playing that game. His ability to piece together hours of film is evident right away—just take a look at the superb “Jane” for another example. The editing in “Moonage Daydream” is astounding; it switches between eras and locations more in line with the mood of the music than with the beat.
In the course of this, Morgen does begin to glean some information about Bowie’s life—such as the impact of his older brother and an interview in which he discusses love—but he is far more interested in the art than the man (although one could argue they intertwine). This is a movie about expression, and Bowie seemed to be finding something we were about to experience rather than something that had already universally felt. Bowie was more concerned with where we were heading than the period he was in. And he would find another one to ride the moment he felt like the rest of the world had caught up to him. Bowie and those interviewing him in TV portions are the only voices heard throughout the movie, and he talks about never wanting to squander a day. Morgen’s movie illustrates how much Bowie needed to express himself in terms of the creative process. Much has been written about how Bowie would remake himself in various eras, but Morgen’s documentary draws a natural connection between these various phases of his life. They were all about an artist attempting to produce something significant to him each and every day.
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Naturally, Morgen heavily relies on Bowie’s music, allowing numerous songs to play out in their full, including a few killer live versions—a there’s “Let’s Dance” late that might have your audience up and dancing. He is not, however, drawn to a best hits collection. Not all of the songs that fans love will be played. That film is not this one. Given the depth and complexity of Bowie’s career, I’d want to hear from Morgen about how he selected the songs to be included. Or how he picked the references that appear throughout the movie—including clips from “Nosferatu,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” and many more. He really depicts Bowie as more of a filter for other pop culture than the space alien who originally characterized his image. He represents the height of creative freedom.
Moonage Daydream Quiz
Of course, expression does not call for justification. Although one could argue that Bowie was echoing themes from earlier in his life at that point in his career and that Morgen is doing the same, once again playing with time like in that prologue, some scenes in what is a very long movie start to feel repetitive. However, some viewers may wish for a little more grounding. Additionally, he skims over the last roughly 20 years of Bowie’s life, but at that point, the artist was also redefining themes he had previously explored and, arguably, becoming more intensely personal in his final works. Even though it’s absurd to say that a 140-minute documentary isn’t long enough, I still wished there had been a little more on the later Bowie.
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“Moonage Daydream,” a film that wants you to lose yourself in it as an experience more than the “teaching tool” approach of the conventional music doc, is a little repetitive, but I honestly never felt the length of it. Just like I frequently do with Bowie’s music, I became lost in it. And for some reason, getting lost feels more satisfying than knowing where we’re going—both in the song and the movie about him. At one point, Bowie talks of diving into deep water till your feet are no longer able to touch the earth. Creativity can be discovered there. That is the setting for this film.
About the quiz
On September 8, a review was submitted from the Toronto International Film Festival. On September 16th, IMAX will debut it. Think large and out loud.Also, you must try to play this Moonage Daydream quiz.