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David Bowie: Moonage Daydream review

New documentary reviewed by SDE

In Moonage Daydream, Brett Morgen’s new documentary film, David Bowie narrates the story of his life and career with audio lifted from a multitude of interviews over the years and decades. There are no ‘talking heads’ to guide us through (there’s not even any captions), the only voice we hear is Bowie’s and the various interviewers from around the world that talked to him. All this is set to footage of David Bowie being David Bowie. Whether that’s playing live on the Ziggy Stardust tour in 1972/3, walking around looking meaningful in the Far East (from the Ricochet documentary of 1984), acting in films (The Man Who Fell To Earth) or simply talking to Russel Harty.

In one respect, the documentary is fairly traditional, with Bowie’s aural history broadly in chronological order. He tells us of his “ordinary” upbringing, his cool relationship with his mother (“we have an understanding”), the positive influence of his half-brother Terry (who went on to spend most of his life in hospital due to schizophrenia) and in the early 1970s, his relaxed attitude to (bi)sexuality. We move through the various phases of his creative life, as he departs for America to soak up the influences (like a fly in a carton of milk!), heads to Berlin to record with Eno and Visconti, decides to become an “entertainer” in the early 80s with Let’s Dance and then ends up in the creative ghetto of Pepsi-sponsored corporate rock for most of the rest of that decade. He reconnects with his desire to be artistic, vows to please himself in the 1990s, meets his second wife Iman (there’s no mention of Angie), falls in love and is finally contented.

That’s where convention stops. Visually Moonage Daydream is a feast, bordering at times on overindulgence. As Bowie speaks to us, Morgen will often overlay a period-relevant visual, before juxtaposing other shots of David from completely different eras of his life and career. Ziggy on stage in 73 cuts straight to a pensive Bowie in being filmed in the Far East a decade later, before switching back again. 1991 ’Sound + Vision’ Bowie drops in regularly throughout the 1970s (much footage is used from the ‘Fame ’90’ video) and during a ‘Let’s Dance’ sequence there’s a frenzied pace to the editing that switches frenetically from Earls Court in ’78 to Ziggy in ’73, to David Live in LA, to Footstompin’ on The Dick Cavett Show and so on. Woven into this are often stunning animations and celestial visuals; cuts to iconic pop-culture visuals from the 20th century (e.g. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey); familiar footage (Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor documentary from 1975) and the not so familiar (stunning film of Bowie in Hansa Studios in Berlin).

The spoken word audio and visuals rest of a bed of music that binds everything together. The sound design is incredible and with the help of Tony Visconti songs are often deconstructed and reconstructed during a sequence before morphing into something else. This provides a kaleidoscopic and sometimes disorienting experience. Morgen is clearly influenced by Bowie’s mid-seventies ‘cut-up’ lyric-writing techniques (a concept borrowed from William Burroughs) where he’d write lyrics and cut them up and jumble them about with the goal being to inspire new ideas. Morgen takes his cue from that and uses this non-linear technique visually, something Steven Soderbergh played with in his 1999 film The Limey.

As a technical and creative achievement it’s significant and one can only wonder how long it took Morgen (who ‘wrote’, directed and edited the documentary) to put together this million-piece jigsaw. It was surely an all-consuming obsession for some years.

While it’s clever, one question we must ask is whether this technique truly works as a documentary. Does Moonage Daydream teach us anything new about David Bowie? The wonderful footage, the probing interviews (some more revealing than others) and the incredible live performances are all highly enjoyable, but when stitched together they do not add up to more than the sum of their parts. The film searches for some higher truth and deep insight but fails to find it. David Bowie was an interesting interviewee, but you have to question whether linking disparate, on the hoof responses together provides us with a reliable world view.

For example his ’selling out’ to be a unit-shifting ’80s pop star is certainly covered but isn’t properly explored, save for hints that he simply wanted a big pay cheque by moving to EMI (in one clip he laughs before exclaiming “no shit, Sherlock” when it’s put to him in the late 1970s that his Berlin period of albums can’t have been the most lucrative). There are also gaps, including that significant creative control-alt-delete that was rock band Tin Machine in 1989. This is completely ignored (possibly due to ongoing contractual disputes). 

At two hours and 15 minutes the film is at least half an hour too long, a feeling accentuated by the reuse of clips you’ve already seen on a number of occasions which gives a rather circular, haven’t-we-been-here-before vibe to proceedings. When you’re sneaking a glance at your watch regularly during the last stretch and hoping it’s the end when the screen fades to black (only for it to start into the next sequence) you know there’s something wrong, somewhere.

Most disconcertingly, Moonage Daydream is oddly unmoving, even in the final throes, as ‘Blackstar’ plays. There’s a feeling of Bowie keeping his distance with his interviewers over the years. He’s in control, perhaps playing a role like Ziggy or The Thin White Duke. You can see why the Estate approved this documentary concept. With David as narrator, Moonage Daydream is yet another masterclass in Bowie pulling the strings, this time from beyond the grave.

Moonage Daydream opens on 16 September 2022. A soundtrack will be released as a 2CD set on 18 November.

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David Bowie

Moonage Daydream - 2CD set

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Tracklisting

Moonage Daydream: Music From The Film David Bowie /

    • CD1
      1. “Time… one of the most complex expressions…”
      2. Ian Fish U.K. Heir (Moonage Daydream Mix 1)
      3. Hallo Spaceboy (Moonage Daydream Remix Edit)
      4. Medley: Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud / All The Young Dudes / Oh! You Pretty Things (Live)
      5. Life On Mars? (2016 Mix Moonage Daydream Edit)
      6. Moonage Daydream (Live)
      7. The Jean Genie / Love Me Do / The Jean Genie (Live) (featuring Jeff Beck)
      8. The Light (Excerpt)*
      9. Warszawa (Live Moonage Daydream Edit)
      10. Quicksand (Early Version 2021 Mix)
      11. Medley: Future Legend / Diamonds Dogs intro / Cracked Actor
      12. Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (Live in Buffalo 8th November 1974)
      13. Aladdin Sane (Moonage Daydream Edit)
      14. Subterraneans
      15. Space Oddity (Moonage Daydream Mix)
      16. V-2 Schneider
    • CD 2
      1. Sound And Vision (Moonage Daydream Mix)
      2. A New Career In A New Town (Moonage Daydream Mix)
      3. Word On A Wing (Moonage Daydream Excerpt)
      4. “Heroes” (Live Moonage Daydream Edit)
      5. D.J. (Moonage Daydream Mix)
      6. Ashes To Ashes (Moonage Daydream Mix)
      7. Move On (Moonage Daydream acappella Mix Edit)
      8. Moss Garden (Moonage Daydream Edit)
      9. Cygnet Committee/Lazarus (Moonage Daydream Mix)
      10. Memory Of A Free Festival (Harmonium Edit)
      11. Modern Love (Moonage Daydream Mix)
      12. Let’s Dance (Live Moonage Daydream Edit)
      13. The Mysteries (Moonage Daydream Mix)
      14. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (Live Moonage Daydream Edit)
      15. Ian Fish U.K. Heir (Moonage Daydream Mix 2)
      16. Word On A Wing (Moonage Daydream Mix)
      17. Hallo Spaceboy (live Moonage Daydream Mix)
      18. I Have Not Been To Oxford Town (Moonage Daydream acappella Mix Edit)
      19. “Heroes”: IV. Sons Of The Silent Age (Excerpt) *
      20. ★ (Moonage Daydream Mix Edit)
      21. Ian Fish U.K. Heir (Moonage Daydream Mix Excerpt)
      22. Memory Of A Free Festival (Moonage Daydream Mix Edit)
      23. Starman
      24. “You’re aware of a deeper existence…”
      25. Changes
      26. “Let me tell you one thing…”
      27. “Well, you know what this has been an incredible pleasure…”
      *Performed by Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop

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