The hype for ‘Moonage Daydream’ is presenting it as a very different kind of David Bowie documentary (and music doc in general), and in some ways that’s true – it’s certainly ‘non-linear’ (which creates a few problems, as we’ll see later) and not yet another retelling of the Bowie story replete with talking heads (David alone ‘narrates’ the movie).
It’s undoubtedly best seen in the cinema, with its striking sound collages, surreal jump cuts and sometimes startling imagery taken from many sources, cult movies (including Canadian curio ‘Universe’, apparently also an influence on Kubrick and Lynch) to Hollywood’s golden age.
Director Brett Morgen is best known for his Kurt Cobain and Rolling Stones documentaries (neither of which your correspondent has seen), and apparently he got complete family approval to sift through countless hours of Bowie’s personal archive – though reportedly David was less than convinced by Morgen’s credentials/pitch when they met in 2007.
But Morgen has certainly got hold of some coups: there’s madly exciting, previously unseen DA Pennebaker footage from the Earls Court and Hammersmith Odeon Ziggy gigs in 1973, including Jeff Beck’s guest spot on ‘Jean Genie/Love Me Do’ – what a thrill to see him trading licks with Mick Ronson.
There’s also some terrific David Hemmings-directed 35mm Earls Court footage from 1978, and you’ll be doing well if you don’t get a lump in the throat during ‘Heroes’ (when is the complete footage finally going to get a proper release?). Then there are tantalising glimpses of Bowie’s many paintings and some intriguing footage from his mid-1970s video experiments. Morgen also borrows large sections of Serious Moonlight tour curio ‘Ricochet’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’.
But the film really comes into its own with its sound design. Tony Visconti has donated audio stems from Bowie’s studio masters so there are interesting reversions of material like ‘Ashes To Ashes’, ‘DJ’ and ‘Absolute Beginners’. I almost cheered when Dennis Davis’s ‘Sound And Vision’ groove exploded into action and it’s a delight hearing Rob Sabino’s solo’d piano from ‘Modern Love’.
But there are issues with ‘Moonage Daydream’. The frenetic editing sometimes leads to jarring moments. If you were being kind you’d say it was ‘non-linear’, if you weren’t you might say it was completely random. Again, not a problem in itself, given Bowie’s use of cut-up techniques and mistrust of linear narratives by the mid-1990s.
Then there are the obvious omissions/Morgen’s perceived irrelevances. Tin Machine isn’t mentioned by name, nor are there any images of the band. In fact the period of 1989-2005 is scarcely covered, save for some interesting outtakes from Samuel Bayers’ videos from that time, some footage from Bowie’s 50th birthday concert and a section on his marriage to Iman.
There is a fairly lengthy exploration of his family background, suburban upbringing and half-brother Terry Burns, though very little about his early Mod days and art-school contemporaries. And Bowie purists may be troubled (well, I was!) by the use of the Pet Shop Boys remix of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ rather than the original to kick off the film.
Of course the question is, if you’re a big Bowie fan – and I presume you are if you’ve read this far – do you need to see ‘Moonage Daydream’? I’d say a qualified ‘yes’… But ultimately it’s still like a very expensive-looking YouTube greatest hits, with many bits of familiar interview footage and a lot of previously seen live stuff. But even that is a thrill to see on the big screen with good sound. Is the film pretentious? Of course, but that was never a criticism for Bowie. He even described his collaborations with Brian Eno as ‘the new school of pretension’…
Further reading: ‘Sight & Sound’ October 2022