The usual way of making a documentary about a famous, no-longer-living popular musician is to weave talking-head interviews (with colleagues, journalists and random celebrities with nothing better to do) around video clips of the star onstage and in the studio. The story tends to follow a standard script: early struggles followed by triumph, disaster and redemption. Movies like this clog the streaming platforms, catering to eager fans and nostalgic dads.
Brett Morgen’s new film about David Bowie is something different. Titled “Moonage Daydream” after a semi-deep cut from Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” and showing in IMAX as well as other formats, it’s less a biography than a séance. Instead of plodding through the chronology of Bowie’s life and career, Morgen conjures the singer’s presence through an artful collage of concert footage and other archival material, including feature films and music videos. There are a lot of great songs, and thanks to Morgen’s dexterous editing, Bowie himself seems to provide the narration, a ghostly effect (he died in 2016) that resonates with some of his ideas about time, consciousness and the universe. He is not so much the subject of the film as its animating spirit.
“Does it matter? Do I bother?” he asks at the beginning, musing on the transience of existence. For anyone who grew up following the iterations of his persona and the evolution of his music, the answer, at least as far as the movie is concerned, is emphatically yes.
Morgen, who has made documentaries about the Chicago 7, Kurt Cobain, Jane Goodall and the Hollywood producer Robert Evans, subordinates the dry facts of history to the mysteries of personality. “Moonage Daydream” is interested in what it felt like to be David Bowie, and also, as a corollary, what it felt like, especially in the 1970s and ’80s, to be interested in him. Context and evaluation — the sources and influences of his music; its relation to what was happening in the wider world — are left to the viewer to supply or infer. The work, and the artist’s presence, are paramount.
For the most part, this approach works. Though Morgen bends and twists the timeline when it suits him, he traces an arc from the early ’70s into the ’90s, beginning in the Ziggy Stardust years and immersing the audience in Bowie’s otherworldly charisma at that moment. His bright orange hair, his brilliantly inventive fashion sense, his frank bisexuality and his almost casual mastery of divergent musical idioms made him an irresistible puzzle for the media and an idol to the restless and curious young.
Appearing onstage in dresses, flowing suits and shiny space gear, he undid gender conventions with insouciant ease. He changed his look and his sound from one album to the next, leading critics to question his authenticity and interviewers to wonder about his true self.
That mystery seems more easily solved now than it might have back then, and “Moonage Daydream” explains some of Bowie’s process and a lot of his thinking. The combined effect of the present-tense voice-over and the earlier interviews is to emphasize Bowie’s essential sanity. Perhaps more than most of his peers, he seems to have approached even excesses and transgressions with a certain intellectual detachment, taking an Apollonian perspective on an essentially Dionysian form.
His postwar childhood is dealt with quickly. He notes the coldness of his parents’ marriage, and the influence of his older half brother, Terry Burns, who introduced young David to jazz, outlaw literature and modern art. Mainly, though, “Moonage Daydream” tacks away from Bowie’s personal life, editing sex and drugs out of its version of rock n roll.
His first marriage, to Angie Barnett, isn’t mentioned at all. His second, to Iman, marks a transition from restless solitude to contented middle age. The emphasis, in both the narration and the images, is on Bowie’s work. His explanations of changes in style and genre are illuminating, and illustrated by shrewd musical selections. You don’t hear all the obvious hits — where was “Young Americans”? — but you do get a sense of his range and inventiveness, and a taste of some less-well-remembered songs. I was glad to be reminded of the anthemic “Rock ’n’ Roll With Me.”
Watching Bowie move through the phases of his career, from the avant-garde to the unapologetically pop, it’s clear, at least in retrospect, that his creative life was a series of experiments in an impressive variety of media. Morgen devotes some time to Bowie’s painting and sculpture, and to his acting, in films like “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” and in a Broadway production of “The Elephant Man.”
Bowie was a pretty good actor, and also — this is shown rather than said — an exceptionally good dancer. His devotion to his work, and the pleasure he took in it, are the themes of “Moonage Daydream.” It’s a portrait of the artist as a thoughtful, lucky man. And perhaps surprisingly, given the mythology that surrounds so many of his contemporaries, a happy one.
Rated PG-13. Rock ’n’ roll, the way it used to be. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes. In theaters.