Moonage Daydream review David Bowie documentary

David Bowie mood-board documentary Moonage Daydream is a spectacular film experience

“While the movie is somewhat sanitized and is emblematic of most estate films, it aims for the stars when it comes to spectacle, capturing the ecstasy of Bowie’s creative process with verve and extravagance.”

For the average Bowie fan, a traditional talking head documentary would have little to offer. He’s been in the limelight for decades and just a few years ago, at the time of his death, the internet outpoured with loving and educational eulogies. His transformative presence as both musician, painter and actor has endeared him to generations of fans. An articulate and thoughtful speaker, he’s rarely shied away from engaging with his persona and challenging the status quo. He was and continues to be a singular artist who captured the population’s imagination. 

Brett Morgen, who directed some of the best showbiz docs of the 21st century, including Montage of Heck and The Kid Stays in the Picture, decided to do something different. Working with archival and concert material, some previously unseen, he created a kind of Bowie mood board. Though working predominantly chronologically, the film structures itself around themes and moods more than a traditional narrative structure. The result? A fantastic cinematic experience that serves up just enough biographical information to maintain some form. 

Moonage Daydream is at its best as a concert film. The concert footage is incredible and well-complemented by the restless and associative editing style. The style of the film doesn’t just rely on images from Bowie’s life, but a lot of abstracted, psychedelic imagery as well as other pop cultural touchstones such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Especially in a movie theatre, it’s an experience to lose yourself in, but it won’t necessarily resonate with non-fans or people looking to learn something about Bowie.

Much luxury comes from working with an artist’s estate to make a documentary. It opens up your options as a filmmaker to use footage that might otherwise be difficult, but the result will inevitably be sanitized, smoothing out any possible roughness. It’s difficult to say if this is emblematic of the conditions of an estate-backed film, but the movie often feels impossibly literal as well. It rarely probes beyond the surface, taking Bowie at his word when he’s being prickly or elusive and presenting the creative process only on the surface, ironing out the specifics of his choices as if they are inconsequential to the final result.

One can easily argue that this film intends to be little more than an experience. But that discounts how we work as humans and downplays that even working within the realm of experience (as many concert and music docs do), they can also stand up and say more than they are. The fact that Bowie had flaws doesn’t discount his artistry. Pushing them into the shadows doesn’t help anyone either. 

Indeed, as a culture, we tend to be reactive when we learn something unpleasant about someone we respect. It swings both ways as people clamour to reject the person or discount, downplay and even deny that an unsavoury fact applies to their favourite artist. But, if we can’t have difficult conversations about the people we admire, what hope do we have to ever really engage with the complexity of people and the world? Avoiding being challenged and avoiding asking questions about whether or not we are capable of real and sustained change leads to a much paler life experience. 

Moonage Daydream may be fundamentally uninterested in these questions, preferring to capture the ecstasy of his creative process with verve and extravagance. Still, its chosen approach presents an incomplete portrait of an artist and a man. It’s a movie made for fans (and more casual than diehard), a nebulous group that often prefers to see artists as false gods than fallible human beings. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the film a PR spectacle, it captures the richness of Bowie’s compassion and the hypnotic quality of his music beautifully, though it rarely steps into deeper waters.

While the movie remains somewhat sanitized and is emblematic of most estate films, it certainly aims for the stars when it comes to spectacle. At its core, if you like Davie Bowie’s music, it’s almost impossible to walk away from Moonage Daydream without feeling a little spark of inspiration and the weight of what was lost when he died. His talent and influence were immense and transformative. He rarely settles on his laurels and pushes himself constantly to break new ground. ■

Moonage Daydream, directed by Brett Morgen

Moonage Daydream opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 16.

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