Inside ‘Moonage Daydream’: the David Bowie doc that nearly killed its director

How 16-hour days in the studio put Brett Morgen in a coma – and the comeback that created a movie masterpiece

Brett Morgen, not unsurprisingly, can vividly recall meeting David Bowie. In 2007, the documentary specialist pitched a non-fiction, on the road film to the musician. The meeting didn’t go well. “He pissed on one of my movies,” snorts Morgen, referring to Chicago 10, a part-animated take on the anti-war protestors put on trial following the 1968 Democratic National Convention. “He was being pretty harsh.”

Morgen, an outspoken man, wasn’t about to be cowed. An assistant interjected, asking what his favourite Bowie album was. “I looked at him and said, ‘Well, to be totally candid, David, I can’t say I’ve appreciated anything you’ve done since ’83.’ And David looked at me and goes, ‘Touché!’ Now, I’ve heard ‘touché’ in cartoons and TV shows, but no one in my life has ever actually said ‘touché!’”

Brett Morgen
CREDIT: Getty

Then in semi-retirement, Bowie rejected the film proposal; Morgen instead turned to other icons of music, directing 2012 Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane and 2015’s Cobain: Montage of Heck, about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. He also hit upon an ambitious new project. “I came up with this idea to create this new genre that I was calling the IMAX music experience,” he explains, “a series of 15 films that were anything but biographical, allowing the audience to have an experience with an artist.”

Shortly afterwards, in January 2016, Bowie passed away. Morgen called his former business manager Bill Zysblat, suggesting that The Thin White Duke would be perfect for such an unconventional approach. Zysblat told him that for the past two decades, Bowie had archived everything. “[Bowie] had said to Bill, ‘What are we going to do with all this stuff? I don’t want to make a traditional documentary.’ And that was when I showed up.” The first filmmaker granted permission to wade through this treasure trove, Morgen spent the next five years submerged in Bowie-land.

“I had a massive heart attack”
–director Brett Morgen

Finally coming up for air, Morgen’s resulting film Moonage Daydream is a dizzying ride through Bowie’s back catalogue. True to his word, it’s a Bowie experience: a collage of never-before-seen concert footage, rare interviews and backstage clips, crisscrossing his career like some sort of demented Bowie boomerang. Opening with 1995’s pumped-up, ravey ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, if you’re looking for a comfortable chronological portrait, look elsewhere. “I was very intrigued by the idea of him having a conversation with himself across time,” Morgen says. One minute you’re watching him in an airport circa Serious Moonlight [Bowie’s 1983 live concert film], the next he’s being interviewed by [‘70s TV personality] Russell Harty 10 years earlier.

“It’s not about David Bowie. It’s not about David Jones. It’s Bowie in quotations,” says Morgen. “It’s meant to be a mirror so that you, the audience, can see your own Bowie and reflect back upon your own life. Because to me, the most exciting thing is that you can go and see a film about David Bowie and learn how to be a better parent or learn how to live a more satisfying life. – not that he went into the studio one night with Brian May and Freddie Mercury and did ‘Under Pressure’.”

Moonage Daydream
CREDIT: Universal

The “chronology”, such as it is, was scripted, says Morgen, who compares it – slightly pretentiously – to Homer’s epic poem The Iliad. “I looked at all of these adventures David went on. He was creating his own storms for himself. And so I viewed his journey in mythical terms, the hero’s journey.” Bowie as Achilles, the Greek warrior who fights the Trojans? Well, stranger comparisons have probably been made across his extraordinary, shape-shifting life.

Morgen began sifting through Bowie’s archives: stills, 16mm, 35mm film; a grand total of five million assets. “We blew through our entire budget, because we only anticipated that there would be four months’ material to screen,” he says. “It took two years.” As a result, Morgen was left to edit the film himself. “Not because I wanted to… there was no money to pay anyone.” Working from 8am to midnight, in a pitch-black studio, isolated and increasingly obsessed, his body gave out on him. “I had a massive heart attack on January 5, 2017,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Flatlined for three minutes.”

“I flatlined for three minutes”
–director Brett Morgen

Morgen was in a coma for a week. “My heart attack happened because my life had been out of control. I’m a tsunami, I’ve always been a tsunami, no balance whatsoever, just all in on whatever I’m doing.” In recovery, he began to feel empty inside. “I felt like, ‘what’s my life been worth?’ Because honestly, when you have kids, that is the only value in life, nurturing them and protecting them. And then I started absorbing Bowie. And to say that I needed him at that station in my life would be the greatest understatement.”

Like many, the 53 year-old Morgen discovered Bowie as a youngster, even seeing him perform on the Serious Moonlight tour. But this reunion at a moment of crisis was another matter. “He came back into my life to teach me how to live,” he says. “It was a real reset. And it was then that I realised that this film would be an opportunity for me to tell my children everything that they would need to know, to live a satisfying and fulfilling life in the 21st century.”

Moonage Daydream
CREDIT: Universal

Wen we meet, it’s more than five years from that life-changing moment, with Morgen just hours away from premiering Moonage Daydream in a midnight slot at the Cannes Film Festival. Seated in a private studio off the Croisette, the town’s main drag, he’s dressed in a burgundy chequered suit, pink shirt and red socks, with long, flowing hair and stubble. Speaking with rapid-fire intensity, his health scare has clearly not dimmed that inner tsunami. On the red carpet that evening, he’ll groove in front of photographers as ‘Let’s Dance’ blasts over the PA system. A cathartic moment of self-expression, after all he’s been through.

He’s also well aware it’s the first time Bowie fans will glimpse any of this unseen footage, “the missing unicorns”, as he puts it. Most notably, recordings of the mythical 1978 Earls Court gigs for his late-’70s Berlin-era albums ‘Heroes’ and ‘Low’, never released officially into the public domain. “The Earls Court show is probably the Holy Grail,” Morgen says. “That [material] was shelved. He got off the tour and was like ‘I’m done.’” Like he did with every scrap of footage, Morgen soaked it all in, never fast-forwarding. “It was five cameras. Two nights. 35 millimetre. 24-track audio. Possibly the greatest performance on film of David’s career.”

“We’ve got the greatest performance on film of Bowie’s career”
–director Brett Morgen

Chief among the gems from that gig, Morgen shows ‘Warszawa’, the set’s magical, mournful and largely instrumental opener, from Low – a moment destined to send shivers down any Bowie fan’s spine. All the while, Morgen abided by rules he follows on all his music docs. “I don’t do clips,” he says. “I don’t ever appropriate two shots in a row.” And so that meant no Top Of The Pops – outlawing Bowie’s 1972 career-making performance of ‘Starman’ – and no Glastonbury. Bang goes that seminal headlining gig from 2000.

Editing the reams of material into a coherent whole was only part of the game. With Morgen determined to release the film on IMAX screens, the huge format usually reserved for blockbusters, it meant mixing the film’s complex soundscapes accordingly. As a result, he reached out to Paul Massey, the hugely experienced sound mixer who won an Oscar for Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. A former recording engineer, who’d toured with the likes of Yes and Supertramp, he’s been working in movies since the mid-’80s, including concert films such as Michael Jackson’s This Is It and One Direction’s This Is Us.

Moonage Daydream
CREDIT: Sony

The task ahead was monumental, trying to make often shaky, scratchy audio sound like it belonged on a contemporary big screen. “Initially, it was going to be about a five or six-week mix. And that turned into – off and on – over about a year-and-a-half,” says Massey, who brought on John Warhurst and Nina Hartstone, fellow Oscar winners from the Bohemian Rhapsody sound team, as well as his sound effects mixing partner Dave Giammarco.

The word “painstaking” springs to mind. Especially when Morgen was choosing takes from footage that’s barely seen the light of day in nearly 50 years. “There’s one performance in Tel Aviv that had to come from a three-quarter inch pneumatic videotape from the ‘70s,” says Massey. “And you can imagine what the audio quality was like. But we cleaned it up as best as we could. And we enhanced it with delays and reverbs, trying to make it sound live.”

David Bowie
CREDIT: Sony

Hartstone and Warhurst even visited a London football stadium, playing tracks through the PA system, mic’d up at various points around the venue to capture an authentic acoustic experience. And yet this was just scratching the surface of a film where Morgen cuts back and forth, at times, between different versions of the same tracks. “I was sometimes wondering ‘Is this the original song? Or has Brett mashed it all up together?’” says Massey. “And most of the time it was Brett mashing it all up together.”

Footage of Bowie being interviewed was also hugely challenging to handle, from dealing with audio afflicted by extraneous noises, like studio lights and camera equipment, to delicately weaving nuggets of chat around myriad Bowie tracks. “There are almost no moments [where music isn’t playing],” says Massey. The more he worked on the film, the more he was peeking inside Bowie’s brain. “I really did feel like we were getting into his most intimate thoughts. And it was an intriguing place to be.”

“This film gets into David Bowie’s most intimate thoughts”
–re-recording mixer Paul Massey

As Moonage Daydream began to take shape, it revealed things even to Morgen. Like an interview Bowie did before 1983’s ‘Let’s Dance’ album turned him into a global, stadium-conquering superstar. “[In it, he says] ‘I don’t want to have to do something so heady. I want to do something that brings joy to people,’” says Morgen. “Becoming a pop act was no different than being Aladdin Sane or being Ziggy. It was by design. He was going to enter the mainstream. It was just another challenge. That blew my fucking mind. That’s not how it happens. [You don’t suddenly] go ‘Okay, yeah, I think now I’ll double down and go for 100,000-seat stadiums and kick Michael Jackson’s ass.’”

The conundrum is whether, through this privileged access, Morgen gets close to the real man, who famously, elusively, states in the film: “I collect personalities.” Others have tried, including Francis Whately, who made David Bowie: Five Years (2013), and two posthumous follow-ups, The Last Five Years (2017) and Finding Fame (2019). Long before that, Alan Yentob profiled Bowie in Cracked Actor (1975), lounging in limos as he toured America, while Gerry Troyna’s Ricochet (1984) chronicled him at the back-end of the Serious Moonlight tour.

Moonage Daydream
CREDIT: Universal

“I think he performed really well in his documentaries,” says Morgen. “Everything is performance.” Arguably, Morgen gets no closer to Bowie than anyone else, unable to penetrate the man behind the masks – certainly compared to Yentob, who found the musician “fragile, exhausted and wasted”, as he relentlessly performed the ‘Diamond Dogs’ (1974) album. Instead, Moonage Daydream is a portrait of a restless artist across his many alter egos, a strange journey across space and time with Bowie at the helm. At least until the mid-’90s, when Bowie married model and businesswoman Iman, and found emotional balance.

Over the past 15 years, Morgen has come to appreciate late-era Bowie, despite what he said to the musician when they’d met back in 2007. He’d grown to love albums like ‘Outside’ (1995), ‘Earthling’ (1997) and ‘Heathen’ (2002). “One of my missions going into the film was to introduce casual Bowie fans to latter period Bowie music,” he says. And yet when he cut it into the film, it dragged. So he dropped it, instead coming full circle to his opening track. “After he did ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ live, why did I need to go to ‘Earthling’?” Morgen muses. “He’s fucking cool again. He’s fucking back.” Touché!, as Bowie once said.

‘Moonage Daydream’ will release exclusively in IMAX on September 16 and wide in UK cinemas from September 23