The most telling moment in Brett Morgen’s new David Bowie doc comes about half-way through. Pale-faced and sporting a tan fedora, Starman is asked a very boring question by an interviewer as they drive through the Californian desert. Instead of answering, he giggles, and announces “there’s a fly in my milk!” A few seconds pass before the smile fades. “He’s a foreign body… which is kind of how I feel.”
Many fans will have seen the clip before – Alan Yentob first used it in his brilliant 1975 film Cracked Actor – yet it perfectly encapsulates the Bowie portrayed in Moonage Daydream. Yes, we get footage of the alien glam god, Ziggy Stardust, strutting across stage and scrambling teen minds with his otherworldly rock and roll. But off-duty, Morgen portrays a quieter icon – deeply thoughtful, often isolated and with a quirky sense of humour.
We kick off with ‘Hallo Spaceboy’, Bowie’s ravey ‘90s team-up with the Pet Shop Boys. It’s an unconventional opener – few filmmakers would trust a post-’Let’s Dance’ track to intro anything – though it sets out Morgen’s stall early on. If you’re looking for a rote rockumentary, look elsewhere. Moonage Daydream is an experience. It hurtles from thrilling live video to surrealist art performance to crackly talkshow outtake, ping-ponging between decades with little regard for traditional narrative timelines. One moment you’re watching the Thin White Duke boss Earl’s Court during the mythical 1978 shows (material that was never officially released, until now), the next he’s wandering through a neon-lit mall in the ‘80s, dressed like an extra from Blade Runner. Then, Morgen will zip you back to post-war Brixton for a bricks and mortar origin story. Add to that a stadium-shaking sound mix (props to studio whizz Paul Massey) plus Morgen’s usual kaleidoscopic visual flourishes, and you’ve got yourself an all-out assault on the senses. Only Bowie himself felt it more viscerally.
If we’re being picky, there’s probably too much focus on the Ziggy years. Morgen once told Bowie to his face: “I can’t say I’ve appreciated anything you’ve done since 1983”. And with 70 per cent of the movie recorded pre-Thatcher, this shows. Earlier this year, Morgen revealed to NME that it took a whopping two years just to watch all the archive material they’d collected, which makes you wonder how many latter day Bowie gems remain on the cutting room floor.
Oddly though, the missing bits only make Moonage Daydream seem more impressive. We don’t get Bowie calling out MTV in 1983 for not featuring Black artists. There’s no trace of a pre-fame David Jones on the Tonight show in 1964. And you certainly won’t find a bespectacled ‘90s era Bowie predicting the internet to Jeremy Paxman, who splutters in disbelief. Thats because Morgen’s film isn’t a greatest hits set. It’s much better than that. It’s an avant garde portrait of an artist that scratches away at the surface paint to reveal the many layers beneath. You should seek it out, immediately.
- Director: Brett Morgen
- Release date: September 16 (IMAX), September 23 (wide in cinemas)