If you’re looking for a documentary that tells you about David Bowie, the man, researched and presented with clear-eyed, journalistic rigour, then Moonage Daydream is not it. You won’t learn Bowie’s date of birth, the names of his first school or first girlfriend or children, his personal politics, favourite colour or even the nature of the disease that killed him. You won’t learn why he chose this or that film role or the meaning of this or that lyric. The words “David Robert Jones”, Bowie’s legal name for his entire life, are not mentioned once. The smattering of biographic detail we do get – a light-touch look at his relationship with his troubled half-brother and distant mother, his meeting second wife, Iman (first wife Angela appears, briefly, in pictures only) tell us little that a Bowie fan can’t find out from watching literally any of the dozens and dozens of Bowie documentaries produced over the years. Even the very cheapest and laziest will cover all of that. And cheap and lazy is absolutely not a description anyone can hurl at Moonage Daydream, which is sumptuous, evocative, glossy as a Vogue cover and put together with great care.
Brett Morgen’s eagerly-awaited, officially-endoresed (if not internally produced) film doesn’t begin with the obvious question that would power a more straightforward documentary – “who was this man, David Jones”? Instead, Morgen poses a more interesting one: “What is David Bowie”. Rather than get bogged down in the reeds of detail, Morgen has instead taken a macro, God’s-eye view through collage, intercutting between familiar and less-familiar footage of the Great Dame on stage with clips from his movies, music videos and television appearances. These are interspersed with classic science fiction and fantasy cinema – Metropolis, Le Voyage dans la Lune, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. At the top of the movie, the word “B O W I E” fades up, one letter at a time, onto the giant black screen, the characters appearing out of order, consciously echoing the opening of Alien. Visually this is a tone poem. An art-pop kaleidoscope. It’s an attempt to capture the feel of Bowie’s career; metatextual, media soaked, post-modern, sexy, weird, shiny.
It wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the sound mix. The narration is provided by Bowie himself via archive interviews – almost no other voice is heard – though the real star is obviously the music. Frequent Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, here doing more than people think, assembled the audio, cherry-picking from across Bowie’s career and providing a clever narrative of its own, opening with the thumping pop of the Pet Shop Boys mix of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, a song that returns in its darker, heavier rock guise toward the close of the film, bringing us full circle. We end the film with new tones and moods applied to a melody we’d heard before. Bowie’s music is the story. The throughline. Visconti puts two songs from 1969’s David Bowie album (later retitled Space Oddity) at either end of the piece, ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Free Cloud’ and ‘Memory of a Free Festival’, placing both in narratively central positions. These are key choices – that album is the most straightforwardly autobiographical of Bowie’s entire career. ‘Wild Eyed Boy …’ introduces perennial Bowie themes of isolation, alienation and prophetic vision via a smoke screen of pastoral, Buddhist imagery, while ‘Memory of a Free Festival’ romanticises a real day in Bowie’s life; 1969’s Beckenham Free Arts Festival of which he was a co-organiser. Neither tells a complete truth, though both contain truth approached from opposing ends – ‘Wild Eyed Boy’ hides real feelings in exotic imagery, while ‘Free Festival’ weaves a hippy utopia out of a day that, in reality, Bowie didn’t especially enjoy (grieving his recently-deceased father, he was in a foul mood all day). It’s reflecting Morgen’s vision for his film, burying some truths in the abstract while polishing others until they glow, buffing down the blemishes and smears and softening the edge.
What strikes you most is how much artifice is on the screen. Morgen rarely uses footage of Bowie speaking as himself. Instead, much of the mood-setting images of its star come from his films. We see far more of Bowie as Thomas Newton in Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and as Jack ‘Straifer’ Celliers in Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence as we do the real David. Even the live footage is mostly Bowie in character, as Ziggy Stardust in the early 70s or acting out theatrical vignettes on 1974’s ambitious Diamond Dogs US tour and playing the smooth rock star on the Serious Moonlight and Glass Spider jaunts of the 80s. More naturalistic, less showy performances from his later tours are rarely glimpsed. His time living a stripped-down life with Iggy Pop in Berlin is mentioned but not especially focussed on, his years as a New York family man ignored altogether. Morgen just isn’t interested in his subjects’ swings at naturalism. The whole piece recalls the montages and esoteric sections from Todd Haynes’ 1998 movie Velvet Goldmind, the fictionalised story of a thinly-disguised Ziggy-Stardust-style character. There are sections here, especially in the first third, where the two films are almost identical. And that’s telling – Morgen is giving us the construction, not the man.
The question you need to ask yourself is a simple one: “are you okay with that?” A Bowie fan going into Moonage Daydream hoping for untold revelations, unseen footage and unheard cuts is going to come away disappointed. They’ll have seen and heard most of this before. That’s not Morgen’s intention. The biographic details we do get almost feel like lip service. They feel unsatisfying because they’re a halfway house and the film never commits to properly exploring them, swerving to play on the surface of Bowie’s image just when things are getting juicily real. That’s not the purpose of Morgen’s film – instead, he immerses us in, well, Bowieness, shining the surface of the art and inviting us to stare deeply into the reflective depths.
There’s a famous Oscar Wilde quote often bandied about when discussing Bowie: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” It’s a quote that must have drifted across Brett Morgen’s desk during the long gestation of his project (he first started discussing the film with David himself back in 2007) and one he seems to have taken to heart. We’re not examining the face of Bowie here, we’re revelling in the masks he created: his characters, his music, his art. And that’s significant because to Bowie, that was always the most important thing. He famously disliked literal interpretations and tellings of his life. He declined to give Haynes’ the rights to his music for Velvet Goldmine, bristled at biographies, and often relied on carefully embellished anecdotes powered by his own charm in interviews. You rarely saw a nakedly vulnerable, human David Bowie. In his later life living in New York, he could apparently walk to the shops unnoticed. Like Marilyn Monroe, his charisma was a light bulb he could turn on and off. He could shrug off “Bowie” and be David Jones, and no one really paid him any mind. Bowie wanted us to look at the mask. His whole catalogue is an experiment in subtle misdirection. Since his death, his estate has respected those wishes – Gabriel Range’s actually-not-that-bad 2020 Bowie biopic, Stardust was denied the rights to use any of Bowie’s music. No fictionalised telling of Bowie’s story has had access to the catalogue. He wanted us to ignore the man behind the curtain.
In that sense, Morgen’s film might be the most fictionalised telling of all. He swallows Bowie’s party line and presents us with a version that the man himself would have been happy to see: A celebration of his art. But of course, that’s the point – and following Wilde’s “mask” quote, if we study the art closely enough, are we, in fact, seeing the whole man after all? Wasn’t that the point all along? One of the most memorable parts of Moonage Daydream is the glimpses of Bowie’s paintings. We see smudged and abstract takes on Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, self portraits, abstracts, and nudes. There are Berlin landscapes and surreal explosions of colour. Like his music the paintings are wonderful, rich, and occasionally stark. Sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful. Mostly they are opaque – but taken together, they are the most personal things we see here. A genuine treat.
Perhaps Morgen’s film is tackling the question, “Who was David Jones?” after all? It’s just doing so via that secondary question, “what is David Bowie?” Like Jareth, the Goblin King, in Labyrinth, Morgen is inviting us to stare into the crystal ball. What we see there is the art, not the man. But if we stare long enough at the art, maybe we see the man after all. Maybe a film doesn’t have to be facts and figures to be a documentary? By celebrating the mask, are we seeing the man? Or are we coming away feeling like we’ve just been shown a very pretty, brilliant-sounding mask and have, in fact, learned nothing at all? Either way, that soundtrack and those images mean you’ll have a brilliant time finding out. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point.