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David Bowie deserves a great documentary – but Moonage Daydream is a saddening bore

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 16/09/2022 Neil McCormick
David Bowie, as seen in Moonage Daydream - Neon/AP © Neon/AP David Bowie, as seen in Moonage Daydream - Neon/AP

David Bowie is back on the silver screen, larger than life or death, coming to a cinema near you. Brett Morgen’s unapologetically overblown documentary, Moonage Daydream, comes heavily garlanded with acclaim from film critics, swooning with delight for impressionistic, non-narrative abstractions of the life and work of one of the greatest pop artists of our times. But as you walk through a sunken dream to the seat with the clearest view, you might want to ask yourself this: whose daydream are you really experiencing? Bowie’s or Morgen’s?

I’ve been a Bowie fan since I was a teenager in the 1970s and the Starman invaded my musical world. His death in 2016, aged 69, felt like a devastatingly personal loss, wrapped up in the bittersweet mysteries of his final album, Blackstar, a glorious cornucopia of secret farewells to the planet. He is someone for whom I would personally queue for 30 hours to pay my respects to were he lying in state. 

So why was I so bored and irritated by two and a quarter hours in a movie theatre watching this elaborately wrought tribute? I hated Moonage Daydream, and I am still a little confused about my response. But it was something to do with the rampant ego at the centre pouring off the screen: not the artistic ego of the star but of his self-appointed amanuensis.

Pompously billed on the posters as “Visionary director Brett Morgen,” the 53-year-old American documentarian was given access by the Bowie estate to five million personal items including paintings, drawings, recordings, photographs, journals and all the known footage of Bowie in existence. Perhaps he was driven to distraction by such uncontainable excess. Morgen suffered a near fatal heart attack whilst beginning work on the film in 2017 and effectively created it whilst in recuperation, dwelling upon his own mortality. 

What he has come up with is certainly original, and there is plenty to admire: notably some fantastic concert footage brilliantly edited together and the sheer pleasure of watching that singularly handsome face as it changes with time and yet always retains a zen-like centre of artistic self assurance. 

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But it is an impressionistic portrait that loops backwards and forwards through Bowie’s career without explanation, intercut with other apparently random elements, set to often odd selections from Bowie’s musical oeuvre by some criteria that is never elucidated, then chopped and mixed up and shaken about by Morgen with the excitable enthusiasm of an art student who has just learned how to use editing software. Moonage Daydream is incredibly personal to the filmmaker, rather than the film's subject. 

It is as if Morgen has mistaken himself for the artist in his sights, as if he believes he is channelling the spirit of Bowie when all his odd choices actually impose himself on Bowie’s art. And there are some very, very odd choices.

A spectacularly wrong note is struck right at the beginning, when Bowie’s wise voice is heard talking about some of the mysteries of time. Rather than segueing into (say) a performance of his extraordinary, luxurious 1972 Aladdin Sane classic Time, we charge into a Pet Shop Boys hi-NRG techno electro dance remix of mid-1990s pop ephemera Hallo Spaceboy – one of those moments when Bowie felt adrift from pop culture and was rather desperately trying to reconnect with current trends. The cinematic result is that a montage of Bowie footage introducing the themes of a Bowie documentary is accompanied by… the voice of Neil Tennant.

David Bowie in Moonage Daydream - Neon/AP © Provided by The Telegraph David Bowie in Moonage Daydream - Neon/AP

Song choices remain curious throughout, skipping signature classics (there is no Rebel Rebel, Golden Years, Young Americans, Fame, Boys Keep Swinging, Scary Monsters, Loving the Alien or Blackstar) for backwater oddities (such as repeated refrains from Ian Fish UK Heir from Buddha of Suburbia) although that may be inevitable for an artist with such an extensive back catalogue. There is a lot of fantastic reheated footage from perhaps already overly familiar Ziggy Stardust farewell concerts, and in general the early Seventies are well represented. 

Nevertheless, Morgen entirely omits the moment Bowie shattered UK pop with his Starman appearance on Top of the Pops, presumably because it means nothing to an American director who would have been four in 1972. There is a bias towards Bowie as seen through his interactions with the USA, which is probably reflective of Morgen’s own interests. But the film’s key flaw is that Morgen has made the curious choice to cut out everyone associated with Bowie, and relentlessly focus on the artist himself, as if he existed in isolation from the rest of humanity.

Bowie was a singular star, true, but he was also an intrinsically collaborative creator, constantly finding new human resources to draw upon. He shaped his music, art and design with such vital characters as Lindsay Kemp, Mick Ronson, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Tony Visconti, Issey Miyake, Nile Rodgers, and, of course, first wife Angie Bowie (who has somehow been entirely erased from his non-linear narrative). The only voices other than Bowie’s that we hear from in Moonage Daydream are fans extolling hagiographic praise and mainstream TV journalists asking relentlessly stupid questions whilst Morgen focusses on the Zen-like patience in Bowie’s beautiful face. 

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Instead of interviewing talking heads (an interesting yet justifiable choice) Morgen has assembled Bowie’s views on himself and his art across the decades. But the effect of hearing Bowie talking on and on (and on) about his art creates an impression of quite ludicrous self-absorption, as if this man existed in a universe of him, himself and David Bowie.

And then (in the style of Bowie’s hero William Burroughs) chop it all up, toss it in the air, and reassemble as if at random. If you are willing to be immersed in over two hours of non contextual Bowie, then dive in. But be warned: you need a degree in Bowie studies to understand what you're being shown. The film is all subtext without context.

And repeat. Whilst ignoring large swathes of his career (Bowie’s inglorious Tin Machine has perhaps understandably hit the cutting room floor, while there is virtually nothing after 1996 and almost no reference to his extraordinary late life comeback), Morgen keeps cutting back to and circling around the same bits of footage, notably a sequence of Bowie in 1983 wandering isolated through an empty shopping mall in Japan. It pops up like a placeholder every time there is nothing else happening, as if Bowie’s spirit was somehow trapped on an oriental escalator for all eternity. In reality it was just a nice shot from little seen promo documentary Ricochet from the Far East leg of his Serious Moonlight tour. 

A scene from Moonage Daydream - Neon/AP © Provided by The Telegraph A scene from Moonage Daydream - Neon/AP

Into this mix, Morgen has tossed all the predictable black and white film library clips of Metropolis, M, Nosferatu, Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that have been a feature of every arty music montage and rock documentary since Julian Temple reinvigorated the form with The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. When in doubt, bang in George Melie’s shot of a comical moon with a rocket in its eye. This style is so over familiar, it makes the description of Morgen on the film poster even more risible. Luis Bunuel was a visionary filmmaker. Using his shot of an eyeball being slashed by a razor from 1929 surrealist silent film Un Chien Andalou for the millionth time does not make you a visionary, it makes you a hack.

An admission: I am not a movie critic, and maybe I know and care too much about David Bowie to ever really surrender to someone else’s idiosyncratic take on him. There is a lot for Bowie fans to enjoy in Moonage Daydream, and, in all honesty, I would watch it again, if only to bask in the pleasure of some of the great concert footage from Earls Court in 1978. But I might wait for it to arrive on streaming, so I can put it on in the background, and make myself a cup of tea whilst Bowie endlessly circles around a Japanese shopping mall.

Putting together any kind of documentary that makes sense of such a long, creative life and immense artistic intellect may be an impossible task. It upsets me that, given access to all the extraordinary material in the Bowie archive, Brett Morgen has decided not to even bother trying to tell Bowie’s story, but rather indulge all his own film school fantasies and create a dubious work of Bowie fan art. 

How long are we going to have to wait now until someone does this properly? For me, Morgen’s greatest sin is that he has taken his privileged access and somehow made Bowie’s life and art appear lonely and tedious. For (to quote a song that reveals more about the artist than this over two hour movie ever could) the film is a saddening bore.

Moonage Daydream is in cinemas now

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