Encapsulating the life and work of a prolific and consummate artist is no easy feat. Sufficiently taking account of such an individual’s extensive repertoire without giving short shrift to significant aspects of it is indeed a challenge, especially when one’s subject is a bona fide Renaissance man artistically. Thankfully, though, that objective is masterfully achieved in “Moonage Daydream,” the new mind-blowing documentary about one of the 20th Century’s most iconic and enigmatic artists, musician/writer/painter/actor David Bowie (1947-2016).
Given the breadth of Bowie’s artistic accomplishments in so many milieus, it’s hard to know where to begin and what to include without creating a work of immense unwieldy length. What’s more, it’s perhaps even more difficult to know what to exclude without creating the appearance of oversight. Fortunately, however, director Brett Morgen has risen to the occasion with this offering, presenting a comprehensive, in-depth, insightful look at his subject in a vehicle that not only covers the basics, but also rewrites the rules of documentary filmmaking in the process. That’s quite an achievement, one that more than does justice to the artist while simultaneously fittingly drawing inspiration from Bowie’s outlooks in creating a genre-changing film truly in the spirit of his beliefs, attitudes and philosophies.
In telling Bowie’s story, the director was not content to follow tried-and-true formulas, such as those that merely recount a chronological history of the subject’s career and a laundry list of accomplishments. Instead, the picture seeks to get under the artist’s skin to examine how and why he created what he did. This is an approach that couldn’t have been easy in light of Bowie’s chameleon-like nature. As an artist who successfully manifested and lived out a series of distinctive personas throughout his career, he embodied characterizations that became so convincingly associated with him that it was difficult to know where they left off and the “real” David Bowie began. Cutting through that deliberate ambiguity, then, had to have posed a major challenge in fulfilling the project’s primary objective.
Morgen accomplishes this task primarily by telling Bowie’s story through his own words, culled from numerous interviews and media appearances over the years. These lesser-known snapshots from the artist’s life and career actually prove quite telling, revealing much about his thought processes and artistic philosophies. These film clips and audio sound bites reveal an unrestrained free spirit who often waxed philosophically, frequently delving into profound metaphysical insights that many of Bowie’s fans and followers may have previously known little or nothing about. Clearly there’s more than meets the eye where Bowie’s creative nature was concerned, and this film eloquently celebrates that in making that aspect of his being plainly known.
In bringing these insights to light, Morgen doesn’t follow a strict timeline. He shifts gears occasionally to illustrate the themes that permeated Bowie’s creative outlook. Some viewers have found this somewhat jarring, but this approach is intentional to show how certain principles permeated the artist’s works over time. In addition, the director includes a number of conflicting segments where Bowie appears to contradict himself, another criticism raised by some viewers. However, considering how many times Bowie shifted gears throughout his career, is it reasonable to think that someone so diverse as him would never change his mind over time? Such inconsistencies may appear troubling to some, but, given how much varied material Bowie produced, can he realistically be faulted for changes of heart?
As insightful as the foregoing is, however, this is not to suggest that the film is a dry, ultra-serious treatise. It’s also a vibrant celebration of Bowie’s life and work. There’s ample performance footage, much of it augmented with colorful, psychedelic graphics and inventive editing. Included are impressive renditions of When You Rock ʼn Roll with Me, Space Oddity and All the Young Dudes, along with a stirring performance of Heroes, a heartfelt version of Word on a Wing (the musical accompaniment for Bowie’s musings on his endearing relationship with model/actress Iman), several lesser-known works and impromptu collaborations with world musicians.
But the artistic celebration doesn’t end there. While Bowie may be best known as a musician, he was also a writer, painter and actor. There are ample film clips from his movie and stage appearances, including such works as “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), “Just a Gigolo” (1978), “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983), “The Hunger” (1983) and “Labyrinth” (1986), as well as footage from his 1980 Broadway turn in “The Elephant Man.” In addition, the film incorporates an array of imagery from Bowie’s music videos and from other artistic and cinematic sources that enhance themes prominent in Bowie’s works and help to illustrate the character of the periods when his materials were released.
From the foregoing, it’s obvious that Morgen has painted an impressive portrait of a multifaceted artist, presenting viewers with an engaging, entertaining and introspective profile of this enigmatic and captivating talent. In pulling this all together, however, the filmmaker’s finished work comes in with a runtime of 2:15:00, a length that some viewers have contended is far too long for a documentary. However, in going back to my original contention, given Bowie’s prolific nature, I’d like to ask the naysayers, “What would you cut out?” How can a sincere, thoughtful filmmaker in all good conscience justifiably impose a shorter duration simply because the production may try the attention span of a few impatient viewers? That seems like a petty quibble in light of everything this release has to say – and offer.
Having so much to offer is one of the qualities I always admired most about Bowie. He had a tremendous capacity for being willing to explore creativity in many different ways, something that became readily apparent in the various artistic media in which he worked, as well as in the diverse expressions he produced in each one of them. It was almost as if he was born to create, to give birth to these conceptions, and then to move on to something new once he had done so, a process he repeated numerous times throughout his life and career. In essence, he personified the notion of the joy and power and creation, the essence of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest the reality we experience – in all its forms – through the power of our thoughts, beliefs and intents.
Throughout the film, viewers hear Bowie speak frequently on this topic. He was innately curious about where our creativity originated and why it existed. He routinely speculated about how this phenomenon came about, and, even if he wasn’t always able to pin down its precise source or exactly how it works, he wasn’t afraid to keep exploring to find out. He sensed that it was something bigger than us but that we could nevertheless tap into it to come up with inspired creations that provided us with tremendous fulfillment, satisfaction and beauty, often of a transcendent nature. That’s pretty deep thought for someone who was often looked upon as just another pop star.
In carrying out this mission, Bowie not only did this for himself, but also by setting an example for the rest of us. As a trendsetter in music, for example, he inspired others to follow suit, quietly nudging them to pursue their creative urges in their own right in their compositions, stage presence, costuming and other attributes. Who knows what the music industry might have missed out on had it not been for him, both in his own works and the many others influenced by him.
One thing is for certain – Bowie was never content to stay put. He was constantly changing, reinventing himself with different personas, including characters as different as Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom and the Thin White Duke, as well as a post-apocalyptic glam rock star of the Diamond Dogs era, a dark reclusive Berlin era performer and a 1980s romantic pop star. He did the same through his acting roles, too, including stints as an enigmatic alien, a vampire, and even as such historical figures as Andy Warhol, Nikola Tesla and Pontius Pilate. Through all of these various iterations, Bowie thus came to personify the conscious creation principle that “everything is in a constant state of becoming.” That’s quite a lofty ideal to aspire to – and one that few have done so expertly as Bowie did.
As diverse as these creations were, however, they all had connections to one another, too. In part that was due to the commonality of their creator. But Bowie sensed that the ties went beyond that, that there were bonds connecting everything in existence, including elements that seemingly went beyond us, almost of a cosmological or universal nature. He mused that somehow a part of us carried on after departing the physical plane, continuing to create in new ways and new realms that we can’t completely envision or fully comprehend. To him it represented a sense of innate continuity that runs through existence, despite the seeming differences that might superficially characterize it in its various expressions.
These thoughts began to occupy a more prominent place in Bowie’s consciousness as he grew older, particularly once he quietly but steadfastly began facing his own mortality. He sought to address these questions in his last days, as seen in the music he wrote and the videos he created for his final album, Black Star, which was released just days before his death. This work was an attempt to try and capture some of these ideas artistically, as well as serving as his own way of saying goodbye to his fans, most of whom were unaware that he was ill. Despite the somewhat ominous tone of this project, it was an effort that attempted to tie together much of what he thought, believed and practiced in his life and work, combining both the sadness of loss and the hope of continuation. And, like everything else he did, Bowie did it with a sense of class, style and distinction that were all his own.
“Moonage Daydream” truly is a major accomplishment as a piece of filmmaking. That’s especially true when one realizes that the combination of elements that make it up presents a portrait of Bowie unlike others about him and those of other artists of his stripe, boldly setting this film apart from other biographies of this kind and setting a new standard for the genre. It is by far the best documentary I’ve seen so far this year, if not one of the best films overall that I have screened in 2022. Fans and followers of Bowie are sure to enjoy, even be moved, by this offering, one that raises his artistic profile (and, one would hope, the level of appreciation he justly deserves) for the diversity and depth of his body of work, something that’s bound to become more widely recognized in the years to come.
The film has already garnered recognition, too, having earned two Cannes Film Festival nominations for the event’s Queer Palm and Golden Eye awards. More accolades are almost certain to follow as awards season heats up, too. The film is currently playing theatrically, which, in my view, is the best place to see it given the dazzling visuals that went into its making. Catch it there while you have the opportunity.
It's difficult to sum up almost anyone’s life in a few hours' time, let alone someone so accomplished and prolific as David Bowie. However, thankfully, this film comes through, showing us more than just what he did but also why he did it. The art world and the world at large are better places for having had such an inspired presence in their midst, and we should be grateful that there’s a picture that brings this all to light in such a brilliant fashion.
Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.