Film files: ‘Moonage Daydream’ pulls us back into Bowie’s orbit

Layered and distorted images of David Bowie's face.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

Halfway through Brett Morgen’s new documentary, “Moonage Daydream,” a pale-faced and fedora-sporting David Bowie is asked a question by an interviewer as they drive through the California desert. Instead of answering, he giggles, and exclaims, “There’s a fly in my milk!” A few seconds later, the smile fades. “He’s a foreign body… which is kind of how I feel.”

This moment offers a fresh look at the singer. All we see is a man in a car sharing his vulnerabilities and his quirky sense of humor, not the otherworldly idol we have come to know as David Bowie. This intimacy suffuses “Moonage Daydream” as a whole, allowing Morgen to explore David Bowie’s creative, musical and spiritual journey as not only as the godly Ziggy Stardust, but also as a deeply thoughtful artist with dazzling charisma.

Morgen conjures Bowie’s presence by frenetically stacking and layering archival material, including concert footage, feature films, interviews and music videos. Earlier this year, he revealed to NME that it took two entire years just to watch all the archival material they’d collected. In the process, Morgen nearly died, falling into a week-long coma after a heart attack.

No two-hour film could ever hope to capture the intricacies of Bowie’s legacy — and Morgen knows this. While his documentary relies on plenty of archival material to trace the singer’s life and career, it focuses more on experiencing Bowie than explaining him.

Bowie himself appears to narrate the film. We hear only from the singer himself — nothing from his collaborators, no talking-head interviews. Bowie’s voice, along with the absence of a linear timeline, gives the film a sense of intimacy that is rare nowadays in a documentary.

With so many documentaries and biopics being released that focus on the dramatic events in their subjects’ careers — neglecting the profound inner lives that defined their art — “Moonage Daydream” breathes new life into the genre by doing the opposite.

But given this, it is best to go into the film knowing that Morgen assumes the viewer already knows a lot about the subject and the context for his evolution as an artist.

Morgen doesn’t rely on Bowie’s greatest hits to hold the documentary together. He opts for footage of his deeper cuts like “Hallo Spaceboy,” the singer’s ’90s collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys. Even the title of the documentary, “Moonage Daydream,” refers to one of Bowie’s lesser-known songs.

Huge chunks of the artist’s life are also left out. Bowie’s first marriage to Angie Barnett, for example, isn’t mentioned at all. The film merely brushes upon Bowie’s “Blackstar” era, his transcendent final years that ended in the “Blackstar” album coming out the same weekend he died. Morgen does, however, delve deeply into Bowie’s experiences of restless solitude, ending in middle-age with his marriage to Iman.

The documentary can also feel a bit repetitive. We hear Bowie muse on his need to perpetually reinvent himself, without any other perspective that might illustrate what was so radical about this or how it actually manifested in his art. It not only dulls the impact, but risks becoming boring — something Bowie could never be.

One of the film’s main themes is Bowie’s use of his art as a form of self-exploration — “I’ve never been sure of my own personality,” he remarks, elsewhere noting that “I’ve always dealt with isolation, in everything I write.” But Morgen reveals little of how the singer’s intent made him different from any other artist or why his screaming, crying fans responded to him so deeply.

While these qualities can make “Moonage Daydream” feel one-dimensional and repetitive, it is still a visually and sonically remarkable film. It also has the blessing of the Bowie estate, unlike a recent Bowie biopic.

In a recent interview, Morgen defended his film, remarking how “It’s meant to be a mirror so that you, the audience, can see your own Bowie and reflect back upon your own life. Because to me, the most exciting thing is that you can go and see a film about David Bowie and learn how to be a better parent or learn how to live a more satisfying life — not that he went into the studio one night with Brian May and Freddie Mercury and did ‘Under Pressure.’”

As Morgen himself notes, “Moonage Daydream” is not for everyone, particularly those who know little of Bowie and his career. But for those looking to merely be pulled into Bowie’s orbit and to breathe in the traces of his creative spirit, this documentary is for you.

Hannah Eliot SC ’24 is from San Francisco, California. She likes to surf and is trying (and failing) to learn how to play the guitar.

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