Gender-fluid pop trailblazer? Genius-level futurist? Brixton boy made good? Alien sent to earth to help English people loosen up? Whatever your favourite side to the limitlessly faceted David Bowie, this magnificently mind-bending film serves it up in a 140-minute career-spanning opus that races by in a snap of the fingers. It’s almost as extraordinary as the man himself.
Reinventing the music doc altogether, director Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Crossfire Hurricane) takes all the conventional raw materials of the genre – live concerts, behind-the-scenes footage, stills, archive interviews, news reportage, knob-twiddling in studios – and rearranges them into a collage of pure Bowie-ness. Embroidered by mind-trip 2001-like visuals (luminous ink spreads across the screen as David launches into a deafening ‘Sound and Vision’), chopped-up film footage featuring everything from Murnau’s Nosferatu to his Jim Henson-helmed puppetry delight in tights Labyrinth to subtly chart his career and influences.
The effect is intoxicating, even before you throw in the music – and from an opening blast of ‘All the Young Dudes’ to a showstopping ‘''Heroes''’, the music will be pure pleasure for Bowie lovers. On the big screen, and with the sound remixed by his long-time producer Tony Visconti, it’s like taking a time capsule back to Hammersmith Odeon’s Ziggy Stardust farewell gig, the LA Universal Amphitheatre show immortalised in the BBC doc Cracked Actor or a packed-out Stage Tour at Earl’s Court.
It’s not a radical reinvention per se: there are plenty of archive interviews here, mostly involving Bowie bamboozling suited-and-tied old-school broadcasters with gnomic utterances while looking a bit like a space wizard. Individually, they don’t add much to your understanding of this ethereal, deep-thinking man. Cumulatively, they show just how powerful a force his restless creativity and need for reinvention came to be. ‘A grasshopper mind’ is how he describes it.
While it doesn’t cover his late-life album renaissance (as his touring life was done in 2004), Moonage Daydream uses some of the 5 million pieces of material blessed to Morgen by the Bowie estate and its overstuffed archive to give fresh insights into his late ’70s Berlin period, the loss of his beloved half-brother, Terry, the direct cause of his own fears of mental illness, and his sweetly sheepish relationship with his own visual art (some of which is shown here for the first time).
It’s especially good on what happened when that grasshopper mind stopped hopping in the ’80s. Success, stadium tours and contentment followed. But so did Tin Machine.
But even with that post-’Let’s Dance’ lull in mind, it’s still amazing to think that, for a time, Bowie wasn’t even considered cool. Moonage Daydream will banish such insane ideas forever.
Moonage Daydream premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s in cinemas worldwide in Sep 2022.