Moonage Daydream is best described a fever dream that was bottled up and displayed as an exhibit at the MoMA museum that has come to life.
Written by Andrew Korpan / September 15, 2022
One of the (non-song) refrains that makes its way into Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream is the idea that David Bowie always wanted to evolve. The man would move on from an art form the second he felt unchallenged by it. This showed not only in Bowie’s music throughout his illustrious career but in this music documentary that pushes the boundaries of what the genre is capable of. And while Johnny Flynn gave it his best shot in Stardust — Flynn was a victim of circumstance and gave a great performance — Moonage Daydream begs the question: Why make biopics when you can have documentaries?
My father isn’t one to live with regrets, but if you asked him what he does regret in his life, I can almost guarantee that not seeing Bowie when he played Snug Harbor — a small venue near the children’s museum I frequently visited as a kid — would be one. Luckily for him, Moonage Daydream gives you the same effect of being front row at a live show with the pounding sound and beautifully-restored footage. For once, Nicole Kidman wasn’t lying when she said that AMC theaters have “sound that you can feel.” Every guitar strum in the closing moments of “Space Oddity” packed a harder punch than the last.
But to put away any fear that Moonage Daydream is just a concert film — not that I’d complain if it was — it’s anything but. It’s near impossible to pinpoint exactly what Morgen’s film is, but the best way I can put it into words is by describing Moonage Daydream as a fever dream that was bottled up and displayed as an exhibit at the MoMA museum that has come to life.
Much of the beauty of this auteur documentary is that Morgen, like Bowie, is marching to the sound of his own horn. It’d be easy to dismiss the lava lamp-like colors that splash with the bass notes of whatever song is blasting your speakers at that given time, but it simply works. Unlike other documentaries that may feature talking heads giving their insight on the subject, Moonage Daydream goes from amalgamations of various sounds to the point of sounding like the build to the crescendo of “A Day in the Life” to various sequences of Bowie painting, walking or dancing and then a full musical number. There’s really no rhythm or consistent pace, but I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. You, the viewer, have no choice but to be in awe of what’s occurring on screen. Like Bowie’s stage presence, Moonage Daydream is entrancing.
Granted, if you’re going to take these types of creative liberties with any artist, Bowie is the one to do it with. It’s clear that Morgen had a vision in mind, and the fact that he got the Bowie estate’s blessing tells you all you need to know. Give Morgen credit as he produced, edited and directed Moonage Daydream. You can tell that the lack of rhythm, or at least a rhythm identifiable to the audience, was carefully constructed by Morgen. And I can’t even blame him. If I were in his shoes — not that I’m half as creative as he is — I wouldn’t want anyone touching the vision that is in place. Considering I, and I imagine most other critics, can’t even fully put it into words, imagine having to direct another person to create that vision. Morgen never gets in his own way and it pays off with the final product.
And of course, there’s a heavy reliance on Bowie’s seeming obsession with space and the atmosphere that comes with it. The opening shot, which is revisited throughout the rest of the film, can best be described as early-David Lynch meets the Shadow Realm from Thor: Love and Thunder, or more appropriately, Lost in Space (the original 1960s series). And look, I’m aware that most are going into Moonage Daydream for the hits of Bowie’s career, but the ambient music that swells in the background of the quieter moments fits perfectly into what a lot of Bowie’s music represents.
There’s always the temptation to make a biopic and it totally makes sense why. You can have a breakthrough like Bohemian Rhapsody and become a major commercial and awards success, or you can attempt to tell a more honest story as Rocketman did. Or, and hear me out, you can let actual footage tell a story. Be honest, why would you want a recreated version of a band’s formation when you can see the band creating their music? That’s why I never need a true, mainstream Beatles biopic. The Fab Four’s formation isn’t nearly as interesting as seeing their musical genius on display. And what did Peter Jackson’s Get Back series give us? 12 hours of The Beatles being The Beatles and letting what could seem to be a mundane day in the office (or studio) do all of the talking.
Look at what Stardust did. For its good intentions, it was one step forward, two steps back in regards to getting Bowie’s story on the big screen. Granted, Stardust had the misfortune of not being able to use any of his music, but after Moonage Daydream, I have no interest in seeing another version of his story.
To be clear, not every musical biopic has to be as auteur as Moonage Daydream. It simply wouldn’t work as there is only one Bowie (imagine a Billy Joel documentary in this style…yeesh). But there’s a happy medium to be found with a film like last year’s The Velvet Underground and the aforementioned Get Back miniseries.
Like Bowie did on many occasions, Morgen has created a triumph. Morgen will be a hero for more than one day because the legacy of this documentary will continue well past its theatrical release. In fact, Moonage Daydream is the standard for musical documentaries as far as I’m concerned. Even a fan of Bowie’s hits like myself can appreciate all of the beauty and splendor of Moonage Daydream. This truly pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, and that cannot be stated enough. It also makes complete sense why screeners for this film weren’t available; it must be seen on the biggest IMAX screen with the best sound systems in order to be fully experienced. The bigger outlook on the implications of Moonage Daydream is whether or not more artists take a bold risk like this to tell their story. I sure hope that more musical artists do as we’re reaching a point of an oversaturation of musical biopics. And as a big fan of U2, I’d much rather have Morgen do a documentary than the planned J.J. Abrams Netflix series.