“Documentary is cinema,” said filmmaker Laura Poitras when she won the Golden Lion in September for her own documentary, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” at the Venice Film Festival. Stirring validation. But take a look around at the state of the form, and it's hard to see documentaries as scrappy and underappreciated works in need of being uplifted. Poitras is right, and the comment is a vital one, but documentaries right now are very capable of speaking for themselves.
“Moonage Daydream,” a deliriously odd and absorbing odyssey through the mind and creative spirit of David Bowie, is as great proof as any of the vibrancy and variety possible in the form today. Its director, Brett Morgen, who had liberal access to archives, made possible by the generosity of the Bowie estate executor, has a clear aversion to talking heads (although given his background of making biographical music documentaries about personalities such as Bowie and Kurt Cobain, I’m sure he feels differently about the Talking Heads). “Moonage Daydream” is a wild ride of a film, so subjective, impressionistic, and amorphous as to belong in some corner room of the MoMA and yet so electrified with the music of one of rock-and-roll's most recognizable voices as to approximate a concert experience.
Like its subject, “Moonage Daydream” straddles the line between art and pop. Bowie’s Berlin period, in which he plumbed the depths of sonic experimentation, collaborating with Brian Eno in the hopes of creating a new “musical language,” is treated appropriately with extended sections of meanderingly philosophical imagery. One striking motif in this section of the film is of Bowie ascending and descending an escalator with neon handrails, presumably during his travels in East Asia. The images are bizarre and breathtaking — their colors, textures and resolutions enhanced by the extraordinary technical wizardry made possible in archival documentary work in recent years.
The subsequent “Let’s Dance” era, in which Bowie ascended to pop stardom with far more dance-able and accessible music is treated less affectionately by Morgen, and so does not get the same level of visual meditation, but I for one was moved by Bowie’s simply and unadornedly stated desire to just be a star again. “Moonage Daydream” has not been a major coup at the box office, but the wide theatrical release it enjoyed was assuredly made possible in part by the large appetite for biographical films about music stars made evident in the past few years. Of course, the most popular of those films were biopics, not nonfiction documentaries, even though Poitras is right: “Documentary is cinema.”
For those looking to learn substantive and tangible information about Bowie’s life story, “Moonage Daydream” only helps out a little. Even with an indulgent 135-minute running time, we are given scant biographical information, which I certainly wished for, having known little about Bowie before going to see the film. The one investigated point of Bowie’s biography is his relationship with his half-brother, Terry Burns, who introduced him to some of the literature and music which would go on to influence his creative output and persona. Burns suffered from schizophrenia after returning from service in the RAF, and his mental illness would have a profound impact on Bowie’s life. Again, Morgen is no stranger to the challenge of evoking a mercurial rock persona, and the non-biographical nature of the film is by design, not by error. “Moonage Daydream” chooses the path of poetical, as opposed to biographical, insight — this was undeniably vexing for me, but I soon made peace with the approach and resolved to simply learn that information elsewhere.
“Moonage Daydream"'s greatest achievement is its stylistic matching of its subject—this means shapeshifting, at turns exhilarating and frustrating, from concert footage to interviews to footage from films and the recurring motif of an imagined moonscape. It is a spiritual, innovative, and nontraditional take on a personal who embodied all three of those adjectives. The film engages with David Bowie on his terms as much as conceivably possible, and because he’s a subject who seems to exceed the typical breeches of the form, the film does too — the very idea of seeing a standard talking-head style documentary about Bowie after this seems impossibly dull. One of the core aspects of Bowie’s vision of himself as an artist — which he articulates in the film — is his view of himself as a canvas. His various alter egos, or “characters,” like Ziggy Stardust — his forays into acting and painting, all reflect an insatiable artistic spirit. Bowie lived his life through art, and made his very self into art. We can view this as man playing God, now that “God is dead” (as a quotation by Bowie intimates at the very beginning of the film) or simply as a man whose greatest joy comes from the power of imaginative playacting, both, or neither, and in my view it changes little. What matters is that Bowie was a tortured soul who overcame his demons through an extraordinarily optimistic outlook on life.
If the film succeeds in anything, it is this — Morgen said that he wanted the film to “be Bowie,” and, regardless of how much he succeeded in doing that, the attempt is maybe the best way to describe it. It’s a perspectival approach, to be sure, and so perhaps he really wanted the film to be “Brett Morgen’s David Bowie.” But maybe that’s not so bad. Morgen has no illusions about the impossibility of a definitive take; his recognition of that allows his film to be more personal. By leaning into Bowie’s inscrutability, further mystified by his death, Morgen reveals a little of Bowie beyond the canvas: a curious, engaging, and deeply feeling person who viewed every interaction, however small, as an opportunity for exchange and growth. Ultimately, this is what resonates from “Moonage Daydream.” Beyond art and artifice, it is an exploration of Bowie’s vision of a life well lived, and a chronicle of the journey of living that life.
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