Movie Review: David Bowie in ‘Moonage Daydream’ (2022)

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

David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps): 35 Years Old Today

bowieRCA Records, released 12th September 1980

10/10

‘Albums of the ’80s’ lists are all the rage these days. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) would easily be in my top ten. It might even be in my top one.

It’s a timeless, masterful work which, for me, can only ever be consumed in its totality. It’s also the collection that all subsequent Bowie albums have been measured against. I would put it over and above Low, Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory for its sheer consistency.

ScaryMonstersBackCover

Here’s my case for the defence, track by track:

1. It’s No Game (Part 1)

I’ve previously written about this being one of the great ’80s album intros. Vocally, Bowie channels John Lydon and Peter Hammill to deliver a New York/New Wave anti-fascist tirade that ranks among his great performances. Producer Tony Visconti ‘f***s with the fabric of time’ to create a cavernous, Eventide-drenched mix and guitarist Robert Fripp delivers one of his most unhinged statements. Avant-rock heaven. Adapted from Bowie’s early demo ‘Tired Of My Life‘.

2. Up The Hill Backwards

A brilliant treatise on press intrusion and the wretchedness of celeb culture inspired by Bowie’s ‘dealings’ with the press during his failing marriage, with an ingenious central image of paparazza snapping away at their prey as they shuffle ‘up the hill backwards’. Endlessly catchy with a beautifully-realised unison vocal – the only track in the Bowie canon which doesn’t feature his solo singing.

3. Scary Monsters

Bowie revisits his finest Mockney accent to deliver a bleak, blanked-out, darkly funny tale of semi-stalking. There’s more Phil Spector-style brilliance from Visconti and another Fripp masterclass in balls-out guitar playing. The only minor criticism is that it possibly goes on for about a minute too long.

4. Ashes To Ashes

An instant classic with a very Bowie mix of child-like innocence and creeping malevolence as the hopelessly drug-addicted, world-weary Major Tom drifts off into the ether. Effortlessly superb songcraft with three or four memorable sections, boundary-pushing lyrics (‘Visions of Jap girls in synthesis’!) and a myriad of majestic hooks.

5. Fashion

The lameness of the style wars is in Bowie’s sights this time as he almost mumbles the ironic verse lyrics over a tough New York disco/funk/rock groove. And there’s more barking mad Fripp soloing. Danceable, amusing, timeless. Originally titled ‘Jamaica’ in demo form.

6. Teenage Wildlife

Initially coming across as slightly lumpy and leaden, the track builds and builds in intensity to deliver a powerful message to Bowie’s ‘mythical younger brother’ about keeping a sense of perspective as one gets older. His patented ‘histrionic’ vocal style is superbly realised and drummer Dennis Davis holds it all together with aplomb. Originally titled ‘It Happens Every Day’ in demo form.

7. Scream Like A Baby

Spooky dystopian fable about a future society’s outlawing of homosexuality and other ‘deviant’ behaviour. Bowie’s ingenious stuttering provoked many a schoolyard titter and the weird vocal doppler effects are perfectly realised. Revamped from the Bowie-written/produced ‘I Am A Laser‘ originally recorded by Ava Cherry/The Astronettes.

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8. Kingdom Come

A superb cover of a track from Tom Verlaine’s debut album, Phil Spector is the obvious influence again with Davis’s booming, overdubbed tom fills and some anthemic, reverb-drenched backing vocals. Majestic, powerful, intriguing. Verlaine was apparently supposed to play guest guitar throughout the album but bowed out at the eleventh hour.

9. Because You’re Young

An ‘advice’ song to his son, Bowie offers the lessons he has learnt and looks back with great poignancy and not a little sarcasm on his carefree, youthful days. Peter Townshend strums along (apparently he arrived at the studio drunk and ready to party, but was stunned to find Visconti and Bowie sitting quietly at the recording desk like ‘two sober, little old men’!) and Bowie delivers a superb, kaleidoscopic lead/backing vocal combo.

10. It’s No Game (Part Two)

Carlos Alomar’s masterly rhythm guitar anchors this reprise, with Bowie doing his best Iggy croon and offering up images of world poverty, media saturation and dunderheaded political/cultural strategies. We hear the multitrack tape spool off its reels at the very end to close one of the great albums of the ’80s or any other decade.

A big nod to Nicholas Pegg.