Director: Brett Morgan (Germany, USA). Year of Release: 2022
We start with a long quote about Nietzsche – the sort that sounds less meaningful and more pretentious the more you think about it. The name of the author of the quote is printed at the bottom – David Bowie. We’ve been warned from the beginning that this is not a film that will spend a moment doubting Bowie’s genius. While this is fair enough as far as it goes – he remains almost unparalleled as an intelligent song writer – it promises a degree of humourless reverence.
Moonage Daydream is a documentary which has dispensed with using talking heads. Instead we see a series of television interviews, some of which are way more perceptive than others, lots of shots of Bowie in a white suit and a panama hat walking through the red light district of Bangkok (this is not even original – it’s taken from an early 1980s documentary), and plenty of extraordinary concert footage.
The tv interviews are largely dull. I’m quite happy to put that down mainly to the inanity of the questions. Bowie dutifully gives platitudinous replies, though at times you worry that maybe he isn’t quite as smart as you took him for. One answer begins “Well, as a Capricorn…” When asked about the variety of his interests, he says “I was a Buddhist on Tuesday and I was into Nietzsche by Friday”, as if this is a sign of much more than his attraction to passing fads.
I’m not exactly sure who the film is aimed at. Long-term fans will have heard the stories about Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother Terry and his Burroughs-inspired cut-up writing many times before, while people with a passing interest could easily get confused by the film’s haphazard time line. The songs are introduced in a vaguely chronological order, but there is little that explains what they have to do with the interview footage that precedes them. It’s all a bit of a mess.
Bowie is described at various times as a chameleon and an alien, as he is in just about every fucking film or article about him. We also see shots from different parts of his career of different fans outside a concert hall explaining what makes he’s good (apparently, it’s because “he’s great”, or – slightly more informatively – he shows that you “didn’t have to be bent to wear make up”. Sometimes progress does not come to us in a straight line).
What we get much less often is anything that helps us understand the songs better, When Bowie is asked about the creative process, he tends to reply with a series of abstractions. Whoever said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture had this sort of interview in mind. We listen to a lot of voices (often Bowie’s own) trying to explain a song, or how it was made, when we’d get more insight and enjoyment by just listening to the damn thing.
Every so often we are treated to a montage of scenes from random classic films, from Triumph of the Will to the chess scene in the Seventh Seal, from Metropolis to Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (aka that silent film about an early moonshot used in the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight video). These clips do nothing to enhance our understanding of the music that is playing, and seem to be there more there to make us think that director Brett Morning is cultivated.
As the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney notes: “all this says more about Morgen’s diligent rights clearance team than it says about Bowie” I’ve seen Moonage Daydream compared to a Julien Temple film, and there are many similarities. This is largely because Temple is a chancer who makes films about himself rather than artists for whom he feels little affinity. Like him, Morgan throws vaguely arty footage onto the screen with the hope that something will stick.
Some of the interviews with Bowie do cover interesting areas, like his difficult relationship with his parents and the conflict between his art and commitment to a partner. However, it’s the nature of interviews on prime time tv, that as soon as something starts to get interesting, we move on to a different subject. It goes without saying that there is no mention of Bowie’s flirtation with Fascism or of sex with underage girls (or, as we know it nowadays, statutory rape).
The musical part of the film more or less finishes in the early 1980s with the Let’s Dance album. On a musical level, this makes sense, as the musical quality of Bowie’s work deteriorated rapidly after this (with the occasional “return to form” album, most of which are covered here). But just as there’s been little serious discussion about Bowie’s work, we hear little about why it is that Bowie could produce so much superlative music in the 1970s and so little since.
In one interview, Bowie denies selling out, saying that you shouldn’t begrudge a musician a large audience. And so you shouldn’t – but this contradicts earlier interviews where he says he’s more interested in playing artistically interesting music to a few people. The film is just not interested in taking this up, apart from preceding the interview with footage of the Glass Spider Tour sponsored by Pepsi showing Bowie and Tina Turner dancing in front of a giant Pepsi can.
So, is Moonage Daydream worth seeing? Well, actually, it is. This is largely because it has the best soundtrack of any film released this year, or most other years. There is lots of enhanced footage of Bowie playing concerts from most phases of his career, even though (or maybe, with the added benefit that) he sticks to playing the Good Stuff. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, Moonage Daydream is way too long and there’s plenty that could be cut, but it’s still worth seeing for the fantastic music.