Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream is a 140-minute shapeshifting epiphany-slash-freakout leading to the revelation that, yes, we’re lovers of David Bowie and that is that. It’s a glorious celebratory montage of archive material, live performance footage, Bowie’s own experimental video art and paintings, movie and stage work and interviews with various normcore TV personalities with whom Bowie is unfailingly polite, open and charming. (There is the inevitable Dick Cavett – who deserves a documentary of his own – also Russell Harty, Valerie Singleton and Mavis Nicholson, though my one disappointment is that Morgen didn’t include the legendary 90s TV interview with Jeremy Paxman in which Bowie tried to convince Paxman that this internet invention was going to be very important.)
As a rock star, Bowie was a unique artist, aesthete, insurgent experimentalist, gender dissident and unrepentant, unselfconscious cigarette smoker. (I wonder if he ever gave that up?) Morgen includes the traditional student-poster gallery of the various icons to whom Bowie can be compared – Oscar Wilde, Buster Keaton, James Baldwin, Aleister Crowley – all perfectly allowable, but none of them quite approximate Bowie’s own sweetness and rock idealism. His physical beauty in my view can be compared to Wilfred Thesiger.
What I loved about Morgen’s film was the way it shows that his fans, especially the ecstatic young people at the Hammersmith Odeon and Earl’s Court shows, were not different from Bowie: they became Bowie. Overwhelmed, transfigured, their faces looked like his face. One guy says, with the passion of a convert on whom enlightenment is dawning like the rising sun: “You don’t have to be bent to wear makeup!” This is the 70s we’re talking about, of course, but … well … fair enough, no you don’t.
The film doesn’t cover Bowie’s personal life as such – although it touches on his half-brother Terry and his tense relationship with his mother. Angie is not mentioned, although Iman is: this film is about the public Bowie, the Bowie of surfaces and images. His personal life is a mystery: he says he has never bought a property in his life (at least before settling down with Iman) and just existed in London or LA or Berlin, simply pursuing the vocation of an artist, albeit an artist who has been lavishly and lucratively recognised in his own lifetime.
Morgen suggests, probably justly, that Bowie’s great period probably came to an end with the 70s, but that his intellectual curiosity and creativity continued to have something heroic and magnificent as the years continued to go by. And perhaps his adventures in other art forms, like Marcel Marceau-type mime or playing the Elephant Man on stage were slightly misjudged in that he had already absorbed all these things, was already drawing on that type of energy in his rock personae. Some of his movie performances were better than others, but again the point was that he had included movie-stardom as an ingredient in what he was already doing. The jittery fever of his presence continues long after the film has ended.
Moonage Daydream screened at the Cannes film festival and is released on 16 September in cinemas.