How much do you like David Bowie? The best documentaries speak beyond their subject, finding narratives that transcend material and speak to broader audiences. Moonage Daydream, to a large extent, does not do that. There is a presumed level of knowledge, some of which seems fair, some of which is not; however, there is also a presumed affection. It is an interesting direction and does speak to the film’s nature as a more atypical documentary. However, if Bowie fan you are not (and perhaps even if you are merely Bowie curious), this certainly isn’t necessarily for you. Moonage Daydream is less interested in chronicling actuality, the presentational space most documentaries aim for (using a subject as springboard for story), and more interested in Bowie’s aesthetic presentation over time, as well as him searching for identity in chaos (which, after a point, becomes the film’s spoken theme). It is also a musical as much as it is a documentary, using a remixed (and reasonably far reaching) selection of Bowie songs as the bedrock for its narrative exploration.
The content somewhat dictates the form, but at the heart of all of this is, ultimatley, quite a linear documentary format. We may use snapshots from songs non-chronologically, and employ wider visual footage as flashbacks and flashforwards, but even this approach implies a central linearity: a core story from which we can briefly jump forward or step back. Though, at every point, we are treated to a fascinating presentation: the sound and vision is stunning, a fluid documentary with no intrusive narration or non-diegetic contextual markers. We are grounded by the film’s editing choices, how it uses concert footage, interview footage, wider archive footage, music videos and a whole range of wider cultural imagery (Bowie’s influences existing in the background, allowing us to appreciate snapshots of Murnau, Lang, Méliès, Kubrick and more, alongside broader inclusion of pop-culture iconography). This approach is a great aesthetic success, as you are caught up in an insular world, a reflection of a turn of phrase Bowie keeps going back to, about how isolation causes one to invent internal worlds. This film is interested in mapping Bowie’s internal world by way of his external expressions, making it a fragmentary but compelling portrait.
The narrative, which is pronounced throughout, exists through ‘Bowie’s words’. A selection of interviews are used as an aural backdrop to contextualise visual footage, actually presenting a very straightforward progression from Bowie’s second album all the way to his last. It is a very intelligently structured narrative path, as it never feels over engineered. Footage pairs wonderfully with the voiceover and each seems to inspire the other naturally. It finds clever connections while never feeling trite — often resisting overt or clichéd pairings. The wider structure is also elegant, pleasingly cyclical in a way that gives strength to the film’s philosophical musings (from Bowie) about the nature of time. It is a film guilty of omission, though. Starting with the second album is already an indication of this; yes, the first is really rather bad, but it happened. It is a part of the Bowie story. Beyond this, the narrative presentation does, at times, invite the viewer to make false presumptions. A core theme is Bowie’s relationship with mainstream success, and how his want to experiment and keep moving could run at odds with his desire for adoration (or a desire to entertain). About two thirds into the film, we chronicle the release of Let’s Dance (1983), a huge commercial success, and this creates a narrative path that presents the idea that Bowie was then commercially successful but critically maligned. Our archival voiceovers all talk of being less creative, but of being more accepted. We see these large live shows, Bowie giving into being a megastar rather than the eternal experimenter. It is a cinematically stunning moment, as it uses footage from the 1987 Glass Spider Tour but what we hear is a Ziggy Stardust (1972) era performance of Rock ‘n Roll Suicide. The song’s poignancy, its elegiac quality, speaks to the central conflict: how this commercial success can be a creative failure. We start to get a visual montage, also, as extravagent concert footage is juxtaposed with the comparatively stripped-down aesthetic of the ’70s performance.
Using the range of music on offer as narrative tools to tell a wider and more emotive story is a brilliant stroke; at a few points, including the end, songs from the second album float in as thematic anchors and as milestones of progress. Fundamentally, it is a film that rewards those who are deeply familiar with Bowie’s catalogue (hence the ‘how much do you like David Bowie?’ question being central); another moment takes the story of Bowie’s burgeoning relationship with Iman and places Word on a Wing from Station to Station (1976) over it. The visual field is now taken over by expressionistic animation, which looks great, and the aural accompaniment is a fascinating choice. After all, Station to Station is the birth of the Thin White Duke persona, an album of love songs (or love adjacent songs) from the point of view of an unfeeling, affected voice. The album has this uncanny hollowness even when presenting deep emotion, one of its strongest characteristics and something that makes it such a fulfilling listening. There is a complexity to how it uses traditional pop subjects to support an existentialist project. At this point, the film is trying to present the idea of Bowie as changed; it uses an interview where his old words are thrown against him, a claim that he had no room or want for love in his life. He professes he doesn’t stand by that sentiment anymore, but this idea is most powerfully sold through using songs of emptiness dug up from the past to overlay a moment of actual emotion, an emotion that song gestured at but never truly expressed. It is a powerful moment underpinned by a real knowledge of the artist, but a moment that also really requires that.
But it is also a part of a wider sequence that is ultimately rather dishonest. Yes, the film finds ways to use Bowie’s earlier music to frame his older self, but it also refuses to interact with so much of the newer music. Musically, we jump from two songs off of 1983’s Let’s Dance to our next song in the chronological timeline, that gets properly featured and feels like part of the narrative, being from 1995’s 1. Outside (one of my personal favourite records in his discography). Notably, this is his most musically and artistically creative album until his final two records in 2013 and 2016 respectively. Which means that 1984-2013, bar 1995, are quite musically uninteresting (though 2002’s Heathen and to a lesser extent 2003’s Reality would hold up as stronger albums if the wider discography didn’t have such high highs). How this links to the film is that there is a mistruth being presented: this wasn’t a period where Bowie became really big but wasn’t being artsy, where he was a continual megastar. Some of the albums in that period were his least commercially successful (Budha of Suburbia (1993) especially so). Also, the music just isn’t very good, and not in the way the film implies. It wasn’t a time of pop hits, as suggested, it was a time of Bowie desparately chasing at aesthetics that he hoped would create traction, often unsuccessfully. But the music from this period is just not in the film.
Yes, we do have tracks from Budha of Suburbiaused as incidental music, the instrumentals The Mysteries and Ian Fish, U.K Heir. These aren’t really featured tracks, though, they exist as background (in a way that the instrumental tracks off of Low and Heroes (1977) don’t); the couple of songs off of 1. Outside are part of a big moment in a film that pushes its narrative through moments of music, that it then attaches narrative to. In essence, there is just a large period of music the film pretends doesn’t exist. Especially amusing as the film does show Bowie’s early, and rather shallow, flirtations with Budhism, but then won’t engage with the album that has Budha in the title. So, why not? Well, seemingly in order to make an entertaining and satisfying film, and it certainly works. A track off of 1. Outside hits so incredibly hard, and a remixed version of this same song (a remix of a remix) starts the film. Our writer, editor and producer, Brett Morgen, constructs the film like an album: the flow of the music is the flow of the narrative and the music has to be good. This is what makes this such a technically impressive film. But the music wasn’t always good, and what makes for a better cinematic experience makes for a lesser document. Something that only becomes pronounced due to the ultimately conventional underpinnings of the film. Yes, it is archival narration, but it is still narration that is leading us chronoligically through a life.
This is a sticking point because the film is so focused on character portrait, mostly to great success. A very early moment is stunning, our second real song, actually. We have a beautiful live performance of Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud, an excellent song off of David Bowie’s second album David Bowie (1969) (often re-released as Space Oddity, due to the popularity of that song, but notably David Bowie’s second record called David Bowie… A kind of career revisionism that the film tacitly supports). This concert footage, though, is intercut with much later footage of Bowie (looking somewhat like he’s walked off of the set of Fire Walk With Me (1992)) going through a public space. It highlights his incongruous and ethereal presence but the song’s lyrics are used to foreground what will be the film’s key theme:
‘It’s really me
Really you and really me
It’s so hard for us to really be
Really you and really me
You’ll lose me, though I’m always
That is really him, him in reality in a way that’s hard to internalise. A legendary musician moving among us. But it is this insistence that hits home, as the film chronicles a search for identity. It focuses on Bowie’s shifting shapes, trying to find a kind of Platonic form of stable self that underlines them: we’ll lose him but, surely, he’s always really him. In this chaos of self, the film finds itself, and fruitfully so. For me, a key moment is a later interview where the interviewer so brilliantly states that Bowie’s key skills is being convincing. We’ve been pushed along by his words for the whole film, they are compelling even when they are grandiose or disagreeable (the film does include, but glosses over, his Far-Right proclamations around the Station to Station era, notably an era of incredibly heavy cocaine use, something the film also doesn’t go into). But is Bowie ever even true to himself? He moves ever forward, constantly convincing himself he is in the right place but always shifting, yet he remains utterly convincing. It is a fascinating discovery and the fluidity of the film, where wider footage is used so beautifully, underpins this so well. It is a really interesting look at identity and the perennial question of whether we know who we are or not.
But the film can be misleading in doing this. Liberal use of footage from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and, later, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) does mostly work well. Firstly, the footage is of masterpiece films and seeing these moments projected is stunning (if you can, watch this in IMAX, seeing the work of Oshima and Roeg, and some of the filmmakers mentioned earlier, on this kind of screen is beauty enough). Secondly, using the fictive in the same way as the real does present the slippery existence it is aiming to. Bowie is a persona defined by projection; these filmic roles are further projections. But the film treating all footage the same will encourage false interpretations. So much art is shown, and not enough credit is given, it does all orbit around the central brilliance of Bowie, and sometimes the credit should be elesewhere. This is the Bowie stoy, it is about the interior world, and it presents this very well. However, this internal world includes missteps both personal and musical, these are sanded off or ignored. It is a curated portrait that is too hagiographic, even if it is cinematically satisfying. By spending so much time being a pyschological portrait, it becomes an issue that the portrait is skewed or falsely constructed.
This being said, the film can be, and still is, completely brilliant. It is an incredibly indulgent and beautifully put together thing, a work of grandiosity and of theatricality totally in tune with its subejct. It leans far too far towards the Bowie obsessives, but as one of those, I have to note that I was completely enraptured. However, the obsessives will also note the omissions. The stepping over failures in order to preserve the image of a flawless artistic genius does stand out, but little things also stand out. In the chronology, we jump from Diamond Dogs (1973) staight to Low (1977), speaking of the LA period, in satisfying depth, but not representing the music created in it. Station to Station gets its moment later, obviously, but not as an album, not as a thing that is created. And no Young Americans (1975) is a crime. Of course, you can’t fit in everything. It is all a choice, and, in order to make a piece of cinema, this film makes very strong choices. It is an aesthetic and technical marvel. It is a work of musical brilliance in keeping with Bowie’s output. It is put together like an album and is a wonderful companion to the feel of a career and to the aesthetic of the artist. But there is something a bit lacking. By indulging in conventionality to push a narrative, the narrative starts to ring false by the film being so selective. It is too indulgent and is disappointingly unwilling to engage in Bowie’s faltering moments. The flaws stem from an engagement with traditional documentary tropes, and with straddling a middle line. As an experimental piece, it is a real success, and perhaps should have embraced this identity further.