‘Moonage Daydream’ is an Ambitious, Thrilling Portrait of David Bowie

Your eyes and ears will be grateful you saw this immersive documentary.
Moonage Daydream

The best things about Moonage Daydream, the new documentary about David Bowie, are what it is not. It is not an endless stream of interviews with famous people who knew him. It does not, like so many contemporary documentaries that take a single person as its subject, weigh itself down with biographical information one could learn from skimming a Wikipedia page. Nor does it make the classic mistake of telling rather than showing the life and work of its protagonist. And David Bowie certainly had a lot to show us during his sixty-nine years on this planet.

Viewers will recognize the typical markers of a biographical documentary like this. The film shows the development of Bowie as a person, both the public persona and the private individual. It charts the various phases of his artistic career. And it reveals the political, sexual, and spiritual journeys that Bowie underwent during each of those periods. But writer-director-producer Brett Morgen brings all that information to the surface only once in a while, often with an interview clip or two of Bowie himself. It would not be a documentary about a 20th-century icon without a Dick Cavett clip, right? Such moments, though, are merely brief reprieves from the bulk of the film, which masterfully centers Bowie’s music and iconography, creating an immersive experience that simultaneously envelopes both eye and ear.

Moonage Daydream features a range of footage, including sequences from Bowie’s own work as a filmmaker. Bowie devotees will be thrilled by Morgen’s treatment of such footage, some of which has never been released before. And then there are shots from live concerts, where Bowie, at various ages, dominates the camera with such drama and energy, it is easy to forget that the primary audience on his mind must have been the thousands of people before him. The footage feels so deliberate; it is almost as if he knew it would someday be used for this purpose. At 140-minutes in length, the film is exceedingly ambitious, and while some parts do drag a little, it all works. Some may even find themselves wishing for more.

Bowie’s music, naturally, features as the primary pulse of Moonage Daydream. Viewers should see the film, which is playing in IMAX, on as big a screen with as loud of speakers as possible. Morgen has a preternatural sense for pairing images and sound. When the music plays, he dips in and out of live performances, knowing when to showcase a certain gesture or expression that appears on Bowie’s face. The filmmaking draws attention to itself in a way that does not distract from its subject. In fact, it is the highly-stylized treatment of Bowie’s life and work that makes it such a compelling and irresistible portrait.

Moonage Daydream certainly at times feels like an homage, but never like hagiography. The contradictions of Bowie’s life and work are acknowledged with care. What makes the film such a refreshing work to watch is the ways in which it seems to demand something from the viewer. No narrator tells us what to think and feel about the subject. One sits in the theater, in their own head, and wonders, who was this man, and what do I think of him?

Like its subject, Moonage Daydream seems to exist outside of time and space.  There are times when the film plays as if it were in a gallery setting. Images appear one after the other. Sometimes, an image or two may repeat. The filmmaking itself comes to draw attention to these repetitions, the recurring motifs, and the thematic preoccupations of Bowie’s own life. Moonage Daydream depicts Bowie’s life as one grounded in experience. In one moment, he talks about the music of Fats Domino and how he never quite understood the lyrics of his music. Instead, he would let it just wash over him. The film seems to mimic this process, passing it on to the viewer. It is not that we relive Bowie’s life, but attempt to live as if we were him. To experience art and the world as he experienced it, as best as one can.

Morgen makes the interesting choice to sprinkle clips of famous films throughout, movies from Hollywood and beyond. Their inclusion heightens the film’s emphasis on visuality. Much of Moonage Daydream concerns the development of Bowie’s look. How others perceived him. How he perceived himself. And, of course, how he made use of the moving image to reflect his own vision of the world. By marrying Bowie’s iconic music with such meta contemplations on the nature of the visual, the film offers a deliberate view of Bowie that in no way attempts to be a definitive one. This emphasis on visual subjectivity makes Moonage Daydream a thrill to watch. In feeling Morgen’s directorial presence, one is reminded that no objective take on a subject can or should exist. There are endless ways to see and experience the life and work of David Bowie.

Moonage Daydream debuts in theaters on September 16, 2022.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.