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.