One for the fans, Brett Morgen’s brilliant phantasmagoric jukebox Moonage Daydream is everything the David Bowie nut could want for Christmas – a painstakingly researched, collated and montaged-together impressionistic celebration, with footage that’s never seen the light of day before, leaning heavily on his most creatively productive years in the 1970s.
I stress “for the fans”, not the obsessives, who will carp that there’s no Tin Machine, or that albums like Outside or Earthling don’t figure. It’s not for the newbies either. There are no onscreen explicators, so if you don’t know, then Moonage Daydream isn’t going to tell you that this particular clip is from the Ziggy tour, or that another one is from the film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. If you can’t tell your Mick Ronson from your Gail Ann Dorsey, sit this one out.
There is a loose chronology, of sorts, though Morgen freestyes a bit with it, jumping back and forwards in time to show that for all the ch-ch-changes, there was a largely consistent Bowie sensibility, one that restlessly wanted to explore brave new worlds and was found it hard to admit it when the wonder years were over.
And so, in a film lasting two hours 15 minutes or so, about one hour and 45 minutes is lavished on the period starting with 1968’s Space Oddity and ending with 1983’s Let’s Dance, Bowie’s deliberate break, when he left experimentation behind and cashed in for the big bucks.
From here the fallow years, which, Bowie is prepared to admit to, even if the obsessives won’t. “There was no growth going on at all,” he says of the period around 1987’s Glass Spider tour. “When you feel comfortable with yourself you can no longer write,” he says in another extract from the many interviews Morgen draws on. The question all successful artists ask themselves is, he says, “Do I need to write any more?”
Bowie as empty poseur, as the man who yearned to be taken seriously as an artist/provocateur and really wanted to be Scott Walker, as a pseudo-profound commentator on cultural developments, he’s in here too, peering out from behind the lofty pronouncements, made, quite often, as a favour to satisfy a journalist who needed to go back to the office with something “significant”. Bowie was an endlessly self-conscious, even shy, man with a need to please. “I would do things to prove I had some emotional substance when I didn’t,” Bowie admits in a late interview made in the Iman years, when he became happy to be just a guy. Laughing, less gnomic.
The film is endorsed by the Bowie family, and at one point his son, Duncan Jones, was going to make it. But he balked. Instead Brett Morgen stepped up and, having made films of Curt Cobain and Jane Goodall, both of which used lots of personal material, got permission to incorporate home movies, paintings etc from the Bowie estate.
They’re a strand, but only one of many, and when the paintings and clips from official and non-official sources fail him, Morgen falls back on movie clips (like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari) and animated hallucinogenics to accompany the music.
Tony Visconti was Bowie’s producer from 1968 all the way – with big gaps – to Blackstar, the album that appeared two days before Bowie’s death. He’s credited here as “music producer” and along with a big team of sound designers, sound recordists and re-recording mixers has done an astonishing job of bigging up the sound and of giving a unifying sheen to output in various genres from various decades. It’s the sort of tinkering you couldn’t get away with on an album. But no such claims to authenticity are being made here, where the sound is in service of the image.
Like the best Bowie songs, Moonage Daydream is propulsive and hooky. It has great versions of all the big hits and samples the man at his best estimation of himself. It’s not in the hating business but nor is it a whitewash. It’s all in here, sometimes with the sound turned down low so you can barely hear. But it is here.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023