Moonage Daydream is a documentary about David Bowie. It is not a concert film, though there is a lot of music and performance footage. It is not a straight biography, though it does give some information on the man and a few details about his life. David Bowie was far from a traditional artist, so writer/director/producer/editor Brett Morgen chose not to tell his story in a traditional documentary. Using concert footage and archival interviews, it is an exploration of the why of the artist as opposed to the who. This is not a look at David Bowie as a person. It uses his life experiences (delivered in his own words) to paint a picture of his art and his psyche. It doesn’t always connect, but it is always fascinating.
In addition to the footage of his subject, Morgen intersperses clips of artistic figures, as well as movies, that potentially influenced David Bowie. Images from Metropolis, Nosferatu, In the Realm of the Senses and many other works are used, playing with the idea that people use the things they interact with (from the media they consume to more personal everyday stuff) to shape what they put back into the world. For Bowie, that was his music, yet he was more than just a person who created music; he was a storyteller. Moonage Daydream (128 minutes, without the end credits) examines that concept in a non-linear fashion that is essentially Bowie the man dissecting Bowie the artist.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this production is how Morgen never lets the viewer stay grounded for very long. There are brief sequences placing this in a specific time in Bowie’s life, where he talks about a trip he took or what his perspective on love is. However, it doesn’t stay in a single place, jumping backward and forward based on a common theme. The narrative is much more theoretical than it is literal, leaving the viewer adrift, in a sense, in David Bowie’s career. Similar to how the man kept his fans off-balance by constantly changing things up, this movie about him keeps things somewhat disorienting by moving around throughout his career. Viewers seeking a story to latch onto will be really frustrated.
On the negative side, a handful of sections feel sort of like repeats and, due in large part to the style Morgen has employed, the movie drags to a finish rather than closing strong. The lack of firm ground for the audience to stand on is mostly exciting, but it is also a bit confusing on the rare occasion where it seems like it is going to delve into Bowie’s bio a little, before suddenly hopping over to something completely different. It is, in essence, a biography of a creative life, following various strands to dive into Bowie in a way that only kind of tells us about the man’s life.
Moonage Daydream is hard to describe because, more than anything else, it is something one has to experience to truly understand what it is like to see it. It’s a journey through David Bowie’s art with him as a philosophical tour guide, musing on the things that clearly seem to have fed into his creative process. Brett Morgen has taken an approach that is tremendously different from the formulaic routine of the traditional musician documentary. This is an ambitious, compelling project, a fitting way to explore someone whose career didn’t follow a familiar pattern.
4 out of 5
Written and Directed by Brett Morgen