Filmmaker Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) takes a non-traditional approach to his latest subject, David Bowie. Moonage Daydream is neither a traditional concert film nor a traditional documentary, but instead blends concert footage, archival interviews with Bowie, and hundreds—thousands?—of clips and images that combine to map the artistic, cinematic, and musical influences of one of rock’s most influential figures. To call Daydream “trippy” is to undersell how gonzo it gets and underserves how carefully Morgen constructs his portrait of Bowie as an artist as a young man, an older man, and a dying man. Do I want to see this film again with an, er, expanded consciousness? Yes, of course. But only because I’ve seen it straight already and can appreciate the masterful build and reveal of Bowie as an artist.
If you’re looking for a factual recitation of David Bowie’s life, go elsewhere. If you want talking heads and third parties explaining Bowie’s relevance and evolving artistic expression, sorry. But if you want to hear Bowie discuss his music, art, process, and interests in his own words, Daydream is for you. Morgen is very much focused on Bowie as an artist, with very little time or attention paid to his private life. His first marriage and none of his children are mentioned at all, and Iman gets barely a passing glance and is only really mentioned to demonstrate how Bowie aged out of his “love is destructive to art” mindset over the course of his life. Daydream is not interested in the Jeopardy-answer version of Bowie’s life.
What Daydream offers is instead an experience, of Bowie’s music, of his artistic evolution, of his life philosophies. It’s fascinating to watch Bowie in a kind of time-lapse, evolving from the elaborate personas of the 1960s and 1970s, to the populism of the 1980s, to the exploration and resurgence of the 1990s and new millennium. At two hours and twenty minutes, Daydream is not short, and yet it flies by, it’s so full of Bowie’s music and passion and interesting thoughts. It’s actually sort of shocking to realize the film is over and the latter portion of Bowie’s career has barely been explored. Morgen could do a sequel just about the last twenty years of Bowie’s life, there’s just too much to contain within one feature film.
The soundtrack is, of course, spectacular, basically a Bowie greatest hits compilation, with some additional remixes. But it’s the way Morgen tells the story of Bowie as an artist through visual language that makes Daydream so engrossing. Footage of everything from Bowie’s own concerts to silent films is incorporated, and it adds up to a catalogue of ideas and influences that contribute to the myth of David Bowie. The man himself, shown through archival footage and interviews, seems to alternate between any one of his stage personas and a considerably quieter, more thoughtful, more withdrawn man who seeks truth and beauty in all his endeavors. No matter how stunning the music he’s just made is, Bowie never seems satisfied and is always chasing the next sound, the next evolution of his expression. (Except for the Eighties, when he just wanted to make music people liked, which might have had something to do with the economic and political troubles facing the UK during that time.)
For those who already know Bowie, Daydream is like discovering a trunk of beloved items in the attic. It’s a chance to revisit personal favorites, and perhaps discover something new, or see something known in a new way. But it also works as a beginner’s overview of who David Bowie was as an artist. The unique appeal of Daydream isn’t just the fumes of Bowie’s own electrifying presence, it’s how it plays to both the Bowie faithful and the uninitiated. If you’ve ever been curious about David Bowie, about understanding his appeal or what the fuss is all about, Moonage Daydream is a perfect primer. And if you already know Bowie, if you’ve missed him these last six years, Moonage Daydream is a portal back into a world that still had David Bowie in it and was better for it.
Moonage Daydream is exclusively in theaters from September 16, 2022.