‘Moonage Daydream’ Is Both Too Much David Bowie and Not Nearly Enough
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Is it possible — in a film about David Bowie — to have both too much of him and not nearly enough? This is the conundrum posed by Brett Morgen’s immersive, impressive and maddening documentary Moonage Daydream.
The film is less documentary and more celebration event: a happening. Given access to nearly everything from Bowie’s estate, Morgen mixes and matches decades, competing aesthetics, known clips and unearthed rarities. He throws it all at you in breakneck fashion until every iteration of David Bowie — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke, the commercial superstar, the techno dystopian, the elder statesman — is imprinted in your cranium.
For a Bowie fanatic like myself, Moonage Daydream is a wondrous thing to behold. It’s flashy and manic and doesn’t let up. The editing here, by Morgen, is masterfully showy, relentless, indifferent to anything that might stink of the ordinary. There’s little logic in how the footage is presented, but the frenetic rhythms and juxtapositions are technically audacious.
“It’s a maximalist film,” Morgen has said. “It’s definitely kaleidoscopic and it really embraces the idea of being a piece of immersive entertainment.”
Unlike poor sad Major Tom, Morgen’s mission is accomplished, and then some. The sound mixes and sound editing, again, are top-notch. And the way the director gives practically all the dialogue in the film to Bowie’s thoughts on life, art and everything in between creates a modicum of narrative flow.
I loved all 8,100 seconds of it. Thrilled to see a beloved artist in his glory, rocking to the heavens, trotting out one iconic look after the next. Laughed at the clip of his painful, coked-out interview with Dick Cavett; gasped at the ghostly specter in the back of an L.A. limo — living on a diet of cocaine, milk and peppers — already the isolated alien that would soon feature in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Yet with all of that — as enjoyable and festive and, yes, thunderously loud as it is — it’s not enough.
A novice in Bowie-ana would be lost, as Morgen doesn’t situate the audience. Those details I mentioned above are noted because I lived through most of them, not because the filmmaker bothers with anything as mundane as an explanation or a framework. Morgen flits between ’70s glam to ’90s industrial to ’80s pop to this to that until you have no sense of when any of these works were released, and certainly no inkling of continuity, how this begat that, or rejected it, or reinvented it, or anything. As visually stunning as much of what Morgen achieves here is — and it is, in truth, spectacular — it fails to contextualize Bowie.
That may well be part of what’s great about Moonage Daydream. Bowie, the master entertainer, doesn’t need contextualization ultimately. Each persona is a magnification of the man himself. In the end they are all a product of the wandering intellect and emotional expressiveness of an iconoclastic artist. No one can argue that.
Yet for a talent that bloomed in creating the painstaking worlds in which his personas lived and breathed and performed and mutated, Moonage Daydream feels reductive. We receive the visual cues, but they have no roots. Bowie — more than any other artist in the last five decades — knew how to center us inside his many guises. He had no allegiance to genre — all was fodder for his inspiration — but he knew that all good stories have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Moonage Daydream is a David Bowie loop: press, immerse, play loud, repeat. Fans will lap it up. The rest of the world will scratch their collective heads and wonder what all the fuss was about.