Something astonishing happened on September 22nd of this year. For the first time in roughly three years, we saw a film in the cinema! My wife and I had been anticipating “Moonage Daydream,” the Brett Morgen film on David Bowie, for a little over a year. And while our lives were a tumult of events, this thing chugged along in the background while we were otherwise engaged. And then it was done. Trailers stoked intrigue and we found ourselves contemplating actually seeing the thing in a theater as I’d read that this or that other streaming platform we are not customers of having it as an exclusive.
But we’ve given up tickets for Sparks and Nick Cave in the pandemic. I couldn’t imagine sitting in a crowded theater to see any film. Not even one on the crucial Mr. Bowie. My loved one would see the trailers and we’d discuss the possibility of seeing it out. We’d gotten our 5th bivalent vaccination for B.A. 4 and B.A. 5 by that time. I saw that the film had a release in IMAX format. Which we’d never seen. I reasoned, that if we were going to indulge in risky behavior, make it worthwhile.
So I looked into where an IMAX theater was that was showing it. I did hasty [flawed] research] that suggested the only one in the state was in nearby Charlotte. In the interim, I received an communique from The RAHB [a friend and commenter who lives near the Research Triangle are of the state] wondering when the next time we might meet in a city between where we each live for some rare quality time. Scant days later, my wife saw that there was an IMAX theater in Winston-Salem showing the film, And it stopped its IMAX run on the 22nd of September. The following week. With Winston-Salem in the midpoint between our homes, it was almost preordained. Especially since The RAHB’s spouse was a lifelong Bowie fan who once saw Bowie with us at the Chili Pepper at his legendary 2nd night there.
What made it all actually happen was when I logged on to the theater’s website to see that the 1:30 showing on the 22nd only had one seat sold for that final day of the run! We bought two tickets. My friends bought two tickets. And when we were there for the showing, there was another couple there for seven seats in the IMAX theatre. It was actually more socially distant than most things that draw me out of my home [job, shopping] so there we were. Fully masked in any case, the theater looked like a scene from The Omega Man as we parked and waited for our friends. It was hard to believe that it might even be open. When our friends arrived we entered and got our seats. The big event was about to begin, and when I say big, I’d not ever seen any IMAX presentations. I was imagining something three stories tall, but it was at least not a small screen like the arts cinemas I used to frequent in my city. But yow! Was it ever loud! Or as my wife said, “maybe you’re just too old!”
It’s been said that the act of writing about music [guilty] makes as much sense as “dancing about architecture” but the intriguing thing about “Moonage Daydream” was that it was by no means a biographical portrait of Bowie. Instead it was a audiovisual tone poem on the subject of Bowie’s creative life and process. It was a vast cinematic collage created in response to the art of David Bowie, using images from the artists’ creative life in addition to thematic imagery taken from almost anywhere and repurposed here as free form metaphor and commentary.
Footage spanning the breadth of Bowie’s professional life was repurposed here to a soundtrack of disparate elements remixed and juxtaposed along a fractured, clashing timeline of the artists’ life. There were no talking heads; the scourge of music biofilms. Just footage of Bowie performing, being interviewed, clips from music videos, clips from earlier documentaries, and an overriding narrative on the artists’ creative process and theories drawn from hours and hours of Bowie interviews where he spoke personally on the issues on hand. Making his the primary voice here.
The film could aptly be experienced like a colorful burst of Gulal powder flowing over the viewer. The frequent bursts of intense, psychedelic colors as seen in the trailer, certainly lend credence to this metaphor. Attempts to impose a linear rationality to the unfolding of the film would be dashed by the juxtapositions of elements from disparate ends of Bowie’s timeline layered over one another with little regard to coherence; but together, these artistic decisions emphasized the gestalt of Bowie’s artistic approach. Which in and of itself, was similarly cobbled together from a wide ranging spectrum of artistic and philosophical thought as represented here by many of the non-Bowie-specific visuals.
All of this sounds pretty intellectual, but as with the artist, it is designed to luxuriate the senses while also providing a further meaning for those who care to dig a little deeper. But that’s not to say that there were not segments re-contextualized in the film that were not worthy of experience in full and on their own. I was teased yet again from footage dating from Alan Yentob’s infamous “Cracked Actor” documentary showing the dissolute, drug-addled Bowie which proved pivotal to his casting in “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” Scenes from that, among many of Bowie’s cinematic endeavors also showing up here; serving to illuminate the themes from time to time. Though I was shocked that a clip or two from “Just A Gigolo” [“It was my 32 Elvis Presley movies rolled into one” – Bowie] manifested here.
That had been a farrago from the hand of director David Hemmings, but a far more powerful cinematic experience was to be found here with footage from the same director’s filming of the Earls Court performance of Bowie’s 1978 Isolar Tour. That was where Bowie aired his now transformative material from the “Low” and “Heroes” albums with a band featuring Adrian Belew standing in for the absent Robert Fripp. Electric clips of “Warsazawa” and “Heroes” had me weeping at what they represented in Bowie’s canon.
And strangely enough, director Brett Morgen found the little remembered travelogue film “Ricochet” [Gerry Troyna 1984] central to his structure of the film. Mirroring Bowie’s own wanderings throughout the various artistic concepts he wove his art from in this film made of Bowie traveling throughout Asia at the end of his “Serious Moonlight” world tour. Many scenes from this one were peppered throughout the runtime of the film. I’ll admit, as one who tries to give the “Let’s Dance” era a wide berth, that it never occurred to me to ever attempt seeing “Ricochet,” so all of the footage used [some twice, even] was fresh to me. Bleach Boy Bowie is not something I care to see all that much.
It’s been interesting to read of the various reactions to this film. Film critics found the break from traditional forms and narrative structures invigorating and it’s dazzled many an eye there. The fascinating conceit of the film is that it is a work of art in response to the life of an artist. Meanwhile, hardcore Bowie fans have largely been in the naysayers camp in commentary I’ve read online here and there. Many find it all bordering on tedium. It certainly isn’t a new documentary on Bowie since factual presentation went right out of the window here.
A gripe I heard from my loved one when it was all over was “where’s Iggy?!” Indeed. there was no mention of him at all and not even a frame of him to be seen in the whole shebang. He was one of the most vital catalysts to Bowie’s art but his artistic processes were far removed from Bowie’s. Besides, he already had his own film. Where I did see eye-to-eye with my wife’s gripe was in the fact that with a film dedicated to Bowie’s artistic journey, there was almost little evidence here of his masterclass in final acts! Bowie confronted his own mortality by spending his last days making “Lazarus” and the ★ album which arguably consolidated all of his themes in a potent and moving finale. But apart from scenes form the ★ video juxtaposed along with music from decades earlier, the culmination of his artistic search was excised from the event.
Other than that lapse, I enjoyed the novel technique and free form creativity of the approach taken here. It represented something new in a film about a musician that may be perhaps viewed as onerous as others attempt to plow a similar furrow. We’ll have to wait and see. The closest thing I’ve ever seen that would compare to the tactics here was the Roxy Music home video, “Total Recall,” which was a melange of Roxy Music footage covering the decade of 1972-1982, but that was done in a linear fashion, without any narration of any kind from the subjects of the video. “Moonage Daydream,” in comparison was suffused with the thoughts of David Bowie throughout its running time. And it occupies a unique position as a piece of art made in response to the life and work of an artist.
It wasn’t playing long here, and life dictated I couldn’t get to it when it was in theaters. I do hope I can stream it soon. I am very intrigued by this and your… review (?) of it makes me all the more interested.
postpostmoderndad – I see varying data on the streamability of the film. One website says HBOMax, another says Netflix! Your mileage may vary!
I was hoping PPM would see and say something about this film. My gal and I saw it two Sundays back and likewise had a nearly empty theatre to ourselves (The Strand, Rockland, Maine). She had seen Bowie at Anaheim Stadium and had been a big fan ever since. She loved this film, felt it gave her a better sense of the Thin White Duke.
So glad you explained the source of those many following clips. For all the hype of the years of research of material it was disappointing to see so many of those back of Bowie’s head scenes, while he wandered about in public. Yes, a lot of bits were used repeatedly. Could have had another 10 minutes of unique imagery if those repeats had been culled. And yes, I too wondered where was Iggy? We get several clips with Eno (and his randomizer cards) at the mixing boards, Belew in the studio and on stage, but not a glimpse of Jimmy Osterberg, the original Panic in Detroit ;-)
Do you think that seeing it in IMAX is mandatory? Or would a “normal” theater suffice?
schwenko – It doesn’t matter what I think. 9-22 was the last day in IMAX distribution for America at least. In that it was a film to blitz the senses, I guess bigger would be better. But not louder. I wish I had brought earplugs. Not only for the Bowie film, but especially for the bone rattling IMAX logos which counted as some form of assault! Speaking of assault, I should mention here the horror of the trailers a bit later on when I have more time.
The three trailers we were subjected to were a harsh, harsh thing indeed. The first I could almost laugh off. It was “Avatar II: Electric Boogaloo.” If there’s a market for computer animated Yes album covers out there, then I’m not among the target audience! If I’m going to watch the holy “Billy Jack,” then I will watch the real thing! Unfortunately after that came the only time my eyeballs have been privy to the unspeakable juggernaut of Marvel Films. A trailer for the Black Panther™ sequel. And the volume levels of the trailer cranked up commensurately. Forcing me to both close my eyes and to plug my ears to preserve my hearing [and integrity]. But that was kid stuff next to the exceptionally megaloud and hateful trailer for “Black Adam™!” I was shellshocked that in the horror of the now, it’s possible to make a film based on an obscure corner of the Captain Marvel/Shazam™ storyline! Comics which, when I was seven, were light-hearted fun, not unremittingly grim and pretentious! This junk was even more hateful than the Marvel trailer! And hands down twice as loud with an unceasing barrage of explosions and sub-bass assault of my soft tissues. This last thing scarred me. Even with my eyes and ears closed off!
40 years ago I was still reading comic books that featured people in skintight costumes beating the hell out of one another. But by 1985 I had shifted any comic reading to the then-burgeoning field of alternative comics. Before stopping even that by the early 90s. So I grew up with this stuff, and liked it at the time. I still cannot fathom any functioning adult caring about CGI depictions of people in weird costumes with magical powers beating the hell of one another. I am afraid that the infantilization of our culture is only picking up pace as I get older and more curmudgeonly. Just what I needed!
I too saw the film in a near-empty theatre (I think there were four of us total), and though I didn’t see it in IMAX it was cranked up (as a rockdoc should be) but not to abusive levels — it was about as loud as any action movie, but because of the subject matter it had a pretty consistent volume compared to the deafening occasional booms and ‘splosions of your average (and they’re all average as far as I’m concerned) superhero flicks.
On to the film itself: like you, I appreciated the non-documentary approach* and the numerous alternate takes/demos/live footage rarely seen or heard by the non-hardcore. However, for the hardcore LIKE WE, there was too little from the early singles-and-pre-Starman period, a lot of emphasis on the the 69-80 period audio-wise, a lot of repetitive stuff from the 81-onward period, and oddly almost nothing from post-Black Tie White Noise except for the ★ visuals.
Eno actually gets a name-check, but Fripp is only seen and not mentioned, nor were almost all of the cast of characters that played foundational and otherwise-important roles in his career. IMO, “the coke years” took up more time than it should have, and as noted by others some clips got multiple views where you would have thought the “vaults” would have barfed up other rarities.
I think for people who love Bowie but rarely ventured beyond the official releases, this is a novel approach that is aimed squarely at people who were turned on to him by his 70s output, with much-appreciated time spent on his arty late-70s quadrilogy. It’s a good-maybe-even-great tribute to the man in an original style I think he would have liked. For the hardcore fans hoping for more unseen footage, they might be a bit disappointed from a visual point of view, but I was equally enjoying the stuff I had seen before. It’s solid, best experienced loud and large, and obviously an act of love.
*that said, I would love a film of other artists who worked with and/or influenced by Bowie to sit down for a reflective documentary also — perhaps this already exists and I haven’t gotten to it yet!
Like you I was anticipating the film also, but was sadly underwhelmed by the whole overly-embellished hot mess. Youtube clips, multiple Ricochet excerpts, and a breathtaking amount of inconsequential non-Bowie related filler left me wanting more
I haven’t seen this yet. What I’ve heard and read has been wildly divergent – folks seem to either love it, for all the reasons you stated, or hate it, and consider a disservice to his memory. I didn’t see it in theaters (it ran at one of our local arthouses for quite a while), but it’s now out on disk, so I’m gonna see if it’s streaming anywhere.
What I did watch last night was a BBC doc on HBO called Davie Bowie: The Last Five Years. That deals with the Blackstar etc. period, and quite well, I think. It’s much more of a straight doc, though all of the talking heads were musicians with whom he recorded his final two albums, and they sometimes recreated their parts live. It also delves into his musical Lazarus – I have no idea if it’s any good or not, but I did find it gratifying to see that, after working on it for months, he was able to attend a performance (the opening one, of course) in person, a mere month before he died, and take a bow onstage with the cast. My wife watched it with me, and said, “I don’t care about David Bowie – why am I crying?” That said it all for me, I think.
Michael Toland – Those two BBC documentaries were fine work, and I especially enjoyed “The Last Five Years” which I actually downloaded [NOT my usual style!] thanks to folks in the Bowienet Forum when it came out and was impossible to see otherwise in the US. In the Steve Hoffman Forum ecosystem, I can say that hardcore Bowie fans hated “Moonage Daydream.” It seems to be strictly a VOD rental right now. I like David Bowie. I have all of the studio canon in their original mixes. I can’t be bothered to collect the posthumous money-spinning remix albums [for Bowie, at least] and all of the numerous live sets, ultraboxes, etc. that have come out even before he died. I’m also enough of a cinephile to have appreciated what “Moonage Daydream” attempted. Like I said, I felt it was something fresh, but I almost shudder at the wave of copycat films that may result.