Brett Morgan’s latest documentary “Moonage Daydream” is a kaleidoscopic presentation of the artistic career of David Bowie, one of the most interesting pop musicians in the late 20th century. Regardless of how much you know about David Bowie (Full Disclosure: I don’t know much except several notable movies where he appeared), the seamlessly dazzling montages of various archival clips in the documentary will convey you his own distinctive artistic style and personality, and it eventually comes to us a vibrant and respectful tribute to his impressive career and lasting achievement.
The opening part of the film mainly revolves around Bowie’s early career years in the early 1970s, which is mainly represented by his flamboyantly androgynous appearance in public. With his fluid sexual image, he drew lots of both female and male fans as one of the major stars during the glam rock period, and the documentary deftly shuffles the archival footage clips of his concert performances for conveying us his huge popularity during that time.
Even when he was not playing his music, Bowie constantly fascinated others with not only his usual flamboyant appearance but also his own distinctive personality. Even when he was not wearing those fancy costumes and makeups, he had a certain indelible unworldly aura around him, and that was certainly the main reason why Nicholas Roeg had him play the alien hero of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976). Although he might not be a great actor, Bowie certainly left considerable impressions via his unconventional presence on the screen, and that still makes the film worthwhile to watch.
Around that time, Bowie came to feel more need for artistic exploration and reinvention, and that was how he came to decide to take a break and then go to West Berlin in 1976. While West Berlin felt quite alien to him in many ways, he felt more comfortable about trying to do many different things, and the documentary shows us him trying not only some musical experiments in a local recording studio but also some abstract paintings. As watching him doing a bit of painting experiments, I could not help but think of when he played Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” (1996), and I observed a series of his paintings with considerable interest and fascination. He really tried to explore and expand his artistic range and talent, and he indeed lived for that as enjoying whatever would come from that.
In the middle of the documentary, we get to know a bit about Bowie’s childhood years, which were not exactly good for him for understandable reasons. Even when he was young, he was not comfortable with the mundane conservative middle-class environment surrounding him, and he surely appreciated how his older half-brother opened the door to new worlds for him. His older half-brother introduced to young Bowie lots of progressive things ranging from Jack Kerouac to John Coltrane, and we can see that was a very important experience for young Bowie.
Unfortunately, not long after he left the Royal Air Force, Bowie’s older half-brother came to suffer schizophrenia and then stayed in a mental hospital for the rest of his life. Considering how art and mental illness are not so far from each other, Bowie seemed to have his own personal demons as he indirectly admitted, but he could ventilate lots of feelings and thoughts via his artistic activities, and I guess that explains a lot about his usual bold attitude and presence in public. He might have been afraid a lot, but he confidently wielded his striking persona as a part of his art and life, and that still existed even when he reinvented his public image as being back in action around the 1980s.
During the 1980s, Bowie became relatively less flamboyant in his slicker attire, but he still captivated his audiences as usual as shown from another series of archival footage clips. Thanks to his experiment period in West Berlin, he was more confident about going his way, and he eventually evolved as an enduring pop music icon who is still recognized and remembered by many people even after his death in 2016.
Although there is not any narrator or interviewee to explain to us about Bowie’s life and career, Morgan, who previously gave us “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (2015) and “Jane” (2017), skillfully generates a solid narrative flow via juggling many different archival footage clips including the ones from Bowie himself. We are simply served with a number of montage sequences assembled from these various archival materials, but the overall result itself is quite compelling in terms of mood and style, and Bowie’s presence constantly hovers over them mainly through his recorded words. To be frank with you, I could not understand that well his metaphysical thoughts as a straightforward man of concrete science, but I can tell you at least that he was a really intelligent dude who also had a very sensitive artistic soul.
In conclusion, “Moonage Daydream” may not enlighten you that much on Bowie’s life and career, but it is a very engaging visual odyssey into Bowie’s life and career. I do not think I understand everything in the documentary, but I enjoyed and admired a lot how it is about, and it may look more fascinating if I revisit it after learning more about Bowie’s life and career. This is surely one of more interesting documentaries of this year, and I sincerely recommend you to give it a chance before this year is over.