After its over-stimulating opening, a barrage of sound and color, “Moonage Daydream” takes a pause, cutting to a clip of a young woman sitting on the steps outside of a stage door, sobbing, a button with David Bowie’s face on it pinned to her lapel. As voices offscreen ask her what’s wrong, she chokes out that she was told Bowie would exit out the back, that she’d been waiting for hours just to see him. It’s a scene that succinctly indicates just how powerful Bowie’s appeal was for so many people.
But why exactly was he so appealing? Director Brett Morgen’s “Moonage Daydream”— the first documentary to be officially sanctioned by Bowie’s estate, its title drawn from Bowie’s 1971 song of the same name—gets to the heart of it, not by obsessing over facts and details, but by creating a feeling. One of the most successful recording artists of all time, David Bowie was constantly reinventing himself. In the early 1970s he inhabited the role of his androgynous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. In the 80s, he achieved mass commercial success with “Let’s Dance.” He frequently shook up his musical style, while pursuing creative outlets outside of music. He starred in films ranging from the war drama “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” the erotic vampire movie “The Hunger,” and cult classic “Labyrinth.” He starred on Broadway in “The Elephant Man,” and actively painted later in life. He changed his appearance as his career evolved as well, from bright hair and make-up paired with flamboyant outfits to neatly tailored suits.
You’d be hard pressed to make a movie about Bowie that’s as interesting as he was, but Morgen’s film comes close to feeling like something Bowie would have made himself. Bowie’s own voice guides us through the film, which is comprised solely of archival interviews and photos, film clips, never-before-seen and newly restored concert footage, and psychedelic animation. The kinetic editing (also by Morgen) is exquisite, overlapping images and sound to create a portrait of its subject, one that is non-chronological but that transitions neatly between themes and eras. The concentration is more on Bowie’s approach to creating and his attitudes toward life and love, touching on topics like how he came up with Ziggy Stardust to falling in love with his wife Iman to his bisexuality and perspective on gender roles. As we watch Bowie body interviewer after interviewer (when asked in one clip whether the sparkly heels he’s wearing are considered men’s shoes or women’s shoes, Bowie responds that they’re just shoes), it becomes more apparent than ever just how ahead of his time he was. And when he discusses in another interview why he’s too vulnerable to show his paintings in galleries, it’s obvious just what a special person he was, a creative force who worked wherever his heart and mind—not trends and profit—journeyed.
Even though “Moonage Daydream” is a good 20 minutes too long, it isn’t comprehensive, and there are periods such as Bowie’s involvement in the band Tin Machine in the early 90s that it skips over. But rest of the movie is so electric—particularly the concert footage and seeing Bowie work the stage and how in sync with him his fans were—and there’s a clear purpose in what Morgen chose to accentuate and what to omit. For someone who often seemed less like a human and more like an alien being beamed down from space to grace us with his talent, the high energy and trippy aesthetic of “Moonage Daydream” is a perfect fit, neatly side-stepping every music doc trope in favor of a sensory experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
“Moonage Daydream” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 134 minutes. Rated PG-13.