Movie review: Moonage Daydream
Stripping away the sycophantic commentary that often accompanies biographical exercises, Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream quietly opens the portal to David Bowie’s central creative vessel: Himself.
Directed by Brett Morgen
Starring: David Bowie, Brian Eno,
Running time: 2 hrs 15 mins
Rating: Parental Guidance
Opens Septemner 23, 2022
By Katherine Monk
It’s going to sound unforgivably trite, especially in light of the subject matter, but it’s also undeniable: Moonage Daydream is a dream come true — literally. Indeed, it’s not just a treasure trove of largely unseen musical and verbal gems from the vast archive of David Bowie’s career artfully strung and knotted into place by director Brett Morgen (Jane, The Kid Stays in the Picture). It’s far more: Moonage Daydream is nothing less than a case study in personal realization, and how one man reached deep into his own darkness to transform human uncertainty and angst into glittering creative substance.
The resulting catalogue — stretching from his self-titled 1967 debut to the posthumous Toy, released in January of this year — is one of the most celebrated achievements in popular music. Pop pundits and peers look to Bowie as a transformative force, a performer who broke down gender lines and genre expectations with every new release. When the Brixton-born Bowie first toured the U.S. as a carrot-topped faux alien named Ziggy Stardust in 1972, critics were impressed by the transparency of “the sham.”
“The singer presented rock & roll as a dying religion: Ziggy himself was a synthetic messiah, an alien come to earth to enact a parody version of that emblematic counterculture fantasy, the rock star as martyr,” wrote Rolling Stone, capturing the overall tone of the media pool’s reaction.
For the next forty years, Bowie’s work inspired many, many more words and thoughts and personal epiphanies. There are books, films, art installations, fashion retrospectives and several documentaries focused on the many angles of Bowie’s creative and personal life. Following his death in 2016, he was close to a cottage industry in curatorial circles as the many layers of his creative life began to emerge, and once again challenge expectation. He wasn’t just a pop star, but a sculptor, a painter, a poet and an actor — an artist who made other artists think art.
There’s no shortage of other people’s opinions about Bowie. In fact, one of the latest biographies of Bowie — Dylan Jones’s ‘David Bowie: A Life’ — is nothing but testimonials from those who knew him, or of him. It’s full of interesting observations and anecdotes from the likes of former wife Angie Bowie and fan/friend Bono, as well as his many creative collaborators such as Harry Maslin (co-producer on Station to Station and Young Americans) and Mick Ronson. The central message of most Bowie biographies is best summed up by a quote from Maslin: “David would try anything without question. He would not necessarily approve of everything or like everything but he would give it a go.”
Hearing from those who knew a given subject is always interesting, and tends to be the central blocks that make up biographical documentary. The beauty of Morgen’s film is how we’re given the chance to experience the twists, turns and transformations of Bowie’s creative life without the weight of others’ words.
In this first-ever Bowie biography to be sanctioned by the Bowie estate, we hear everything from Bowie’s mouth directly. The entire narrative track is centred around his own approach to his own work, which turns the whole movie into more of a personal diary than a survey of his oeuvre. Moreover, the oeuvre is revealed as a vessel for his own spiritual voyage through the inevitable challenges of life itself.
The entire narrative track is centred around his own approach to his own work, which turns the whole movie into more of a personal diary than a survey of his oeuvre…
Forever seeing himself as the spaceman in transit, Bowie was constantly observing the world around him, as well as his own place in it. He understood he had assumed a role, and for the longest time, he insisted on an element of disguise. “I never wanted to appear as myself on stage,” he tells us. His early days of performance was more like “kabuki theatre” than arena rock, because he wasn’t quite sure exactly what he wanted to convey, other than the idea of ‘other.’
“I use myself,” he says. “And I use art in my life to experiment and explore.” Bowie says he’s always been compelled to assert his individuality, even if it was — at times — little more than a public insurrection against conformist norms.
Through the archival footage of televised interviews conducted at the beginning of his performing career, we see how the androgyny and bisexuality swallowed the Bowie narrative whole. We also see his own level of insecurity. He was uncertain about the man who was, so he created micro-realities through art. Then he walked through each alien landscape, just to feel the hard edges and sandy ridges of the worlds he created.
“I use myself,” he says. “And I use art in my life to experiment and explore.”
“I have an extra supply of thoughts and I don’t know what to do with them,” he says. So he let them run wild. He loved the adventure. While many of his peers felt disillusionment, he never surrendered to cynicism, even when he “sold out” to popular trends and advertising in his “Pepsi” moment. As he tells the camera, when it was time for him to experience Los Angeles and the forces of hard core commerce, he dove into the Hollywood fame pool headfirst. He wanted to savour the salty-greasy thrill of American fame — and he did it. First, with a sense of irony. Then, with a genuine appreciation for the responsibility that comes with being in the public eye.
Forever aware of the gaze of others, Bowie found his biggest insights by watching how others watched him — and how that, in turn, made him see himself. Constantly negotiating the social contract between the creator and a potentially fickle public, Bowie began to understand why people needed him to be larger than life. He saw the great, gaping gaps in human meaning and recognized how people saw fame as the ultimate Polyfilla – an easy way to fill in the cracks of an unrealized life.
What they may not understand is the futility of such a pursuit. “I feel the same emptiness they do,” he says. The only difference is that where others sought to elude the hollow ache of the human condition, Bowie revelled in every uncomfortable second of alienation to feed his creative curiosity.
Miraculously, that need to feel powerless — to ‘be naked’ in the moment — is what finally gave him the power to be his true self. Morgen captures the affirming transformation that took Bowie from creative doubt to artistic self-possession — without ever having to use those actual words. He does what filmmakers are supposed to do: tell the story through images, music and mood, successfully transmitting the person and his sense of purpose without pushing a message or a product tie-in.
Moonage Daydream is uniquely dedicated to the art of it all, and because it never wavers in its creative commitment, it never wavers in its ability to communicate all the beauty, and the awe, of life itself.
THE EX-PRESS, September 23, 2022