Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Neon releases the film in theaters on Friday, September 16.
“Moonage Daydream” feels, first and foremost, like a montage of media criticism encompassing the entire 20th century, all of it laser-focused through a single pinhole: the dynamic David Bowie. More sensory experience than straightforward recounting, the documentary by Brett Morgen (“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”) is about feeling your way through a chaotic world with Ziggy Stardust as your anchor. It’s a fitting encapsulation of the many “he taught me it was OK to be weird” sentiments in the wake of Bowie’s death. But despite the quasi-religiousness of such refrains, the film by no means avoids painting the late pop icon as distinctly human, whether through his insecurities, or the way his perspective on love would eventually evolve.
The doc features a treasure trove of archival footage and zero contemporary talking heads. It is immediately positioned as an exploration of Bowie’s rise to global fame in the early ’70s, told from the perspective of that same era (its key filmmaking influence appears to be Stan Brakhage, a pioneer of the dreamlike avant-garde), with a modus operandi involving unapologetic overloads of light and sound. While it eventually takes a peek into the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s, the majority of its 130-minute running time is about the birth of the Bowie persona (and the Ziggy Stardust persona in turn), from raucous live stage performances to televised interviews about his fashion and sexuality, though not before an explosive initial half hour that yanks you by the collar and forces you to pay close attention between the lines — or in this case, between the breakneck cuts.
After opening with a text screen that is essentially Morgen quoting Bowie quoting Friedrich Nietzsche — an exercise in philosophical refraction — “Hallo Spaceboy” blasts at deafening volume, scoring a montage of early and mid-20th century genre cinema, from German expressionism, to the science fantasy of Georges Méliès, even to ’50s schlock horror, all spliced in between 35mm and 16mm footage of Bowie on stage at his most electric.
Given the opening quote (Bowie’s take on Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” reframed here as an unending search for self), the aforementioned film clips each become stylized explorations of humanity’s place in the larger cosmos. Footage of the space age and the moon landing, which influenced Bowie’s early work, are not far behind — nor are images of the many fans and admirers influenced by him in turn. The result is a concentrated, pulsating dose of the cyclical nature of pop culture, manifesting as both questions and answers that inform each other constantly, like a pendulum swinging wildly back and forth.
With this viewpoint firmly etched, the film is able to take a more mellow tonal approach before occasionally bursting back to maximum volume and speed, though it hardly pivots from its central question: What made David Bowie? The answers, while specific to one person, are magnified across the screen in the form of intimate glances from behind Bowie’s bright red mullet and rainbow makeup, and still photographs from his childhood. They become reminders of sorts, of the things that make us all, from past experiences to dreams of the future, and how these are each informed by the micro and macro forces around us.
However, Morgen’s esoteric nonlinear structure — he led the edit himself — still maintains a veneration for Bowie despite bringing him closer to us, perhaps closer than ever before. Bowie was one of us, but it was as if he could see things we could not, whether he was the young, rebellious, Bowie of glam rock’s heyday, providing an entire generation with an outlet they desperately needed, or the aged Bowie of “Blackstar,” staring death head on, as if he were solving the ultimate mystery.
While the featured interviews have him speaking humbly and candidly about his image, Morgen still elevates the man to a level of myth, whether through lingering closeups of numerous fans attending his concerts, crying out and losing themselves in the allure, or through the way Morgen blows up the nearly 50-year-old film footage, until its grain becomes an enveloping tapestry. Bowie seems to move not across the screen, but through its very fabric, like an alien from another universe, whose laws of physics don’t obey our own.
All the while, the mix for his music is oppressively loud, but the result is the closest one can come, four years after his death, to experiencing his work live. Long stretches of the film are allowed to play out like a concert taping, though between each phase of Bowie’s self-construction, Morgen’s own artistic POV returns to offer interpretations and re-contextualizations of where, in time and in culture, each version of Bowie belonged — how he was influenced by the world, and how he influenced it in turn. The film is as much an expression of Bowie’s voice as it is an expression of Morgen’s; it plays like the director’s own search for meaning, filtered through the life of an artist he clearly respects, and who he has the opportunity to reconstruct using unprecedented access from the Bowie estate.
Of course, the fact that “Moonage Daydream” is both “authorized” by Bowie’s family and made from a reverential point of view means that it skirts around anything resembling controversy. However, while such a viewpoint may have yielded a more hagiographic portrait had Morgen taken a more conventional approach, the result here is stereophonic immersion and kaleidoscopic imagery geared towards seating audiences at specific points in time. These moments are, at once, distinctly “of” their respective eras, and yet temporally connected to absolutely everything else. As musical documentaries go, it’s more ambitious than anything you’re likely to witness for quite some time.
“Moonage Daydream” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Neon will release it in September.