Moonage Daydream Revisited
Moonage Daydream, the acclaimed documentary by filmmaker Brett Morgan is in the news because it is becoming available by streaming on HBO Max. It was snubbed at the Academy Awards but it received plenty of other awards and near-universal praise from critics. I watched it when it first became available on DVD, a few months ago and thought this was as good a time as any to watch it again. Much like the film itself, I’m finding myself at a kind of loss for words.
Well, there are many words in the film— all archival from Bowie, some people interviewing Bowie, and occasionally others, like fans. There is no David McCullough or Morgan Freeman-like narrator explaining anything or weaving a narrative. Instead, the movie starts with Bowie talking about time, the clip of which I’ve included here, and continues with a barrage of images and film clips, and in case I didn’t mention it, Bowie talking about himself.
There is a story in there somewhere, and there’s a lot missing from that story. Before I ever saw the movie, I heard an interview with Morgan. He was pretty defensive, and I remember him reacting to criticism that he didn’t include various aspects of Bowie’s life or people who are part of the larger story. Morgan’s defense was essentially that he had only so much time to work with and, some version of, “it’s not that type of documentary.” All this is fair enough, but what Morgan succeeded in doing was create a spectacle of “sound and vision” without succeeding in figuring out how to tell the story of David Bowie in two hours.
To some extent, the film focuses on Bowie during the early 1970s, but it doesn’t limit itself to that time, and intersperses clips of Bowie from other times, even when the implied narrative focus remained on the period roughly starting with Ziggy and going through The Man Who Fell to Earth. Morgan could have really zeroed in on a particular phase of Bowie’s life or career, or even a particular project. He doesn’t do that and instead decided that in order to tell the whole story using a very impressionistic technique, he’d best leave out quite a lot of what people think of when they think of David Bowie. Much like the “time” clip in the beginning (see the attached clip), Morgan ends up saying less than he seems to be saying.
In that same interview, Morgan was also defensive about a criticism he’s heard from some fans that they have seen or heard most of the musical clips in the film. He disputed this and gave as a counterpoint footage of Bowie singing, “Rock and Roll with Me” in Buffalo (yay Buffalo!) I think he was also trying to make the argument that footage or audio clips that some fans think they’ve heard are not the clips we think. Maybe, but aside from “Rock and Roll with Me,” I have to say that I felt like I heard and even saw most of the clips of Bowie singing. That’s OK, but if you’re not purporting to reveal anything new, the question then becomes whether these are the best or even most representative samples. I don’t have an answer to that. The musical aspect of the film is very much welcomed.
A boiled down version of the “Bowie story” has more or less calcified since his death. It goes something like this: Bowie burst on the scene in the 70s as an innovator who was several steps ahead of the rest of the broader culture and as a result developed a fanatical fan base while receiving broad critical acclaim for his eclectic work. Near the peak of his powers he nearly succumbed to addiction and excess, only to take a step back and return with yet another wave of innovative work. But upon achieving his pinnacle of commercial success in the 1980s, he hit a creative nadir, only to vanish as a significant figure for a somewhat indeterminate amount of time, then he found happiness with Iman. Then comes a comeback narrative, though there’s less consensus on what this comeback looks like. Sometimes (not in the case of this movie), there’s an acknowledgment that Bowie vanished for a decade, sometimes there’s a part about him becoming a father for the second time, sometimes The Next Day makes it into the story. Then Blackstar, death and he belongs to the ages now.
Morgan abbreviates that abbreviation. Morgan’s story is 70s-80s-Iman. And Iman is really the end of the story— there’s relatively little exploration of his actual relationship with Iman and no mention of either of Bowie’s children. Though Morgan uses two versions of “Hallo Spaceboy,” there’s relatively little other music included from the time after Let’s Dance.
Soooooo…this isn’t the definitive David Bowie documentary. I liked it. I liked it a second time. But I’m thinking about Peter Jackson’s Get Back, which does a better job despite spending far more time on a far more narrow aspect of the Beatles’ story. I also go back to the fictionalized movie, Velvet Underground, which was not as widley acclaimed as Moonage Daydream but I actually think does a better job of telling the story of the Glam rock period.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that Moonage Daydream is a disappointment. It isn’t. But I do feel left wanting more. Someone call Ken Burns, and see if Morgan Freeman is available!