‘Moonage Daydream’ review: Bowie documentary is a kaleidoscopic whirlwind

“Who is he? What is he? Where did he come from? Is he a creature of a foreign power? Is he a creep, is he dangerous, is he smart, dumb, nice to his parents? Real, a put-on? Crazy? Sane? Man, woman, robot?” This is how the new David Bowie documentary, Brett Morgen’s ‘Moonage Daydream’, begins. And as Ziggy Dardust emerges on stage with his cheeks gaunt, thighs showing and red mullet flowing, you get a profound sense that if you were in 1971 you really would think this guy is from another planet. His performance is so compelling you can’t believe he has any existence off stage, or to put it in Bowie’s words: “Offstage I’m a robot. Onstage I achieve emotion”

Although ‘Moonage Daydream’ is a documentary, to call it that doesn’t do the film justice. While it is a chronological retelling of Bowie’s extraordinary life and career, it is more like a collage. Bowie was a multi-media artist and Morgen utilises this by piecing together his live-performances, interviews, movie appearance, painting, dance, mime along with kaleidoscopic animations. But all this archival footage – a lot of it never seen before – is not just used to show off Bowie’s insane creativity, but also to give us intimate access to the tumultuous psychology of the artist.

For example, when Bowie is going through his mid-70s hedonism, we see film footage where Bowie is performing for the screen, as himself or someone else we’re not sure. But as he lounges around his mansion, sadly sipping Martinis in bed, we get a perfect sense of how the true Bowie feels behind his personas. In fact, what struck me about the film was how lonely he looked a lot of the time. As though he really was extra-terrestrial, unable to make meaningful connections with other humans.

Morgen interestingly teases out how there is something almost masochistic about Bowie. He deliberately places himself in spaces where he is uncomfortable, believing it will be best for his art. So, he lives for two years in Los Angeles – a city he passionately hates – holed up in his apartment barely seeing anyone. But after his cocaine issues wildly escalate, he decides to trade glitz for granite and move to Berlin because it is the bleakest place he can possibly think of.

Yet as the film progresses, it becomes more optimistic. Although his creative output declines post-70s, Bowie frees himself from his personas and self-punishment. He begins to appreciate existence as a human. He travels the world, he wants to make ‘happy’ records, he lets himself love others. You come out of the film caring much more about the man than his art, just pleased that he survived the incredibly dark moments we saw earlier on screen.

The film isn’t encyclopaedic, it doesn’t – and couldn’t possibly – capture every detail about Bowie extraordinary life and legacy. But it is a powerful portrait by Morgen. One that succeeds in capturing the chameleon-like shifts in identity that Bowie makes, all the while revealing why he creates these guises and how he truly feels beneath them.

At two hours fifteen minutes, the film does run on too long. I think this is partly because ‘Moonage Daydream’ is an assault on the senses. This maximalist attitude works perfectly to convey the intensity of Bowie’s life and music – loud and colourful in equal measure. But towards the end as the same footage gets repeated, the vivid animations and booming live performances can wear a little.

But that being said, the film is still an extraordinary watch. I’d highly recommend it. I went in knowing a few Bowie songs but very little about him and came out utterly fascinated by the guy. I not only got a strong sense of his artistic output, but also the private crises that often informed that art. Plus the music is truly great – I was bobbing my head the entire time. If you do watch it, try to make sure it is in a cinema. With a film as visually and sonically intense as this, you’ll need a big screen and big speakers.

(Image: Ron Frazier on Flickr)

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