In a poetic piece made for the BBC in 1998 about the work of British artist Richard Devereux, David Bowie confronted “a deep and formidable mystery: I’m dying. You’re dying. Second by second, all is transient. Does it matter?” Those words circle around Moonage Daydream, threading in and out of Brett Morgen’s unfolding screen elegy. They bookend Morgen’s maximalist collage of Bowie’s life, work and thoughts – from disposable glam-pop culture to timeless matters of life and death via a kaleidoscopic montage of music, mime, painting, acting, animation and dance, all filtered through a cosmic wardrobe of ever-changing clothes, hair and teeth.
“He’s smashing!” burbles a 1970s Ziggy fan, one of many who have waited tearfully at a stage door to catch a glimpse of their idol. On stage, Bowie performs All the Young Dudes and Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud while cameras peer lasciviously up his silk-printed, polo-necked minidress. “Everything is rubbish, and all rubbish is wonderful,” says Bowie, another of the endlessly quotable found fragments that are the closest the film comes to narration. A little later, we hear of his “hotch-potch philosophy – I was a Buddhist on Tuesday and I was into Nietzsche by Friday”.
There’s more than a touch of Julien Temple’s pop-culture car-crash aesthetic in the way Morgen, whose credits include the 2002 Robert Evans documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture and 2015’s Cobain: Montage of Heck, uses fragments of films (Un Chien Andalou, The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange – all of which Bowie eagerly recycled in his songs and stage shows) to illustrate this multifaceted tale. Scenes from The Man Who Fell to Earth are juxtaposed almost indistinguishably with Cracked Actor, the documentary that first made Nicolas Roeg think he’d found his starman. Meanwhile, the studied awkwardness of early interviews stands in striking contrast to Bowie’s confidence on stage, confirming his claim that he felt most comfortable playing other people. Only later in life does he appear to find peace with himself.
There is some fragmentary childhood backstory, including memories of his half-brother, Terry, who introduced him to Jack Kerouac and John Coltrane before succumbing to schizophrenia. But it’s the lives Bowie created, rather than the one he inherited, that are Morgen’s main focus. Thus we see him scissoring journals in an attempt to apply William Burroughs’s cut-up techniques to songwriting, and hear of his desire to strip away the past and discover new ways of recording with Brian Eno on the Berlin trilogy.
While the overall progression of the film is broadly chronological, individual elements are shuffled for thematic effect. The intercutting of Rock’n’Roll Suicide with an account of Bowie’s most commercially successful period in the 80s (all marionette boxercise moves and Gloria Hunniford-style blond bouffants) drives home the point that, beneath the hits and sellout tours, this was “the vacuum of my life… I never wanted to be out there pleasing people”. More subtly, the keyboard stems from Cygnet Committee provide perfect accompaniment to images of the artworks Bowie once chose to keep private, while the drumbeats of Sound and Vision and the vocals of Absolute Beginners collide in “musical mashups” smartly designed and edited by Morgen, overseen by Tony Visconti.
Is it definitive? Of course not. No two-and-a-quarter hour film could ever hope to contain Bowie’s labyrinthine legacy, and despite the exhaustive mining of rich archival material (some familiar, some revelatory), there are still plenty of roads for future film-makers to follow. What Moonage Daydream does manage to do is to share some of the adventurous spirit of its subject – a chameleon who wasn’t afraid of falling flat on his face while reaching for the stars. If Bowie’s career teaches us anything, it’s that no one can laugh at you if you’ve already laughed at yourself. Certainly his capacity for balancing seriousness with self-deprecation (“No shit, Sherlock!”) remained one of Bowie’s most endearing traits.
Earlier this year, film director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code, Mute) tweeted that, although he had not yet seen this new film about his father’s life, “it absolutely has the blessing of our family” because “I know it was made with love”. It sounds cheesy to say so, but it is precisely that profound sense of love that shines through Moonage Daydream.