I did not watch “Moonage Daydream” high. My friend sitting next to me did. We both walked out of the theater feeling the same way: completely enamored and happily overwhelmed. There are some people who are incapable of escaping their inner creativity, and David Bowie is one of them. The aptly named “Moonage Daydream,” directed by Brett Morgen (“Cobain: Montage of Heck”) presents this idea brazenly. There is little narrative continuity, and anyone hoping to watch a chronological biography will be disappointed. While this documentary doesn’t explain every detail of Bowie’s life and storied career, it does something better — “Moonage Daydream” accurately represents Bowie’s creative voice and freedom by recreating the emotion found in his work. The film’s purposeful staggering and looseness matches that of Bowie’s music.
The film opens with a montage of concerts, interviews and surreal images inspired by Bowie’s work. It closes with a similar montage. In fact, “Moonage Daydream” remains a montage of archival footage, kaleidoscopic imagery and Bowie’s music throughout its runtime. It presents not as a boring, disjointed mess, but as an overstimulating onslaught to one’s senses, committed to recreating the feeling, not the logic, of Bowie’s artistry.
Bowie’s creativity was not limited to music, and Morgen knows this. Ample time is spent with Bowie as he creates paintings and short films. He talks about wanting to display his visual art but lacks the confidence. Throughout the film, there is a spotlight on Bowie’s constantly shifting fashion and public image. The majority of the beginning is dedicated to his early ’70s alter-ego, the androgynous alien “Ziggy Stardust,” and the media attention to his cross-dressing. As he changes into other personas such as “The Thin White Duke” in the mid to late ’70s and the populist performer in the early ’80s, the movie reflects each particular artistic persona or phase.
The film never forgets that Bowie’s work, while often changing stylistically, carried many of the same themes and quirks. There is a montage for the song “Space Oddity,” where Bowie performs the song in multiple eras as different personas. Many of the interviews and quotes used harken back to previous parts of the film, referencing his unchanging philosophies: He believes personality is malleable only to a certain extent. The core tone and mood of the film is stable throughout, just as the core of Bowie as a person and artist remained firm along his shifting artistic ventures.
The music, as expected, is constant and incredible. Some of the most famous songs — “Life on Mars?,” the titular “Moonage Daydream” and “Heroes” — are shown in analogous music videos or breathtaking live performances. Morgen knows which songs carry weight and presents them as exciting, energetic events. Some of the lesser known songs, such as the instrumentals “Subterraneans” and “Moss Garden,” are used just as brilliantly, emphasizing the more introspective and calm moments that are equally important to Bowie’s artistic legacy as his bombastic glam rock cuts.
The film does highlight the effect of those compelling rock cuts on Bowie’s audience and fanbase, though. Much of the montage footage depicts teenage and young adult fans showing their affection for Bowie with emotional and sometimes sexual outbursts à la Beatlemania. There are shots of silent, wide-eyed audience members during concerts, visibly in awe and completely absorbed by his music and persona. Morgen truly shows the extent of Bowie’s inspirational and powerful aura. That was the effect that he had on people, and true to the subject, that was the effect that Morgen’s film had on me.
“Moonage Daydream” succeeds as a documentary and as a viewing experience because it is as accurate to its subject as possible — not in any factual recounting, but in the way it feels and in the sensory and emotional effect it has on the audience. Morgen understands that Bowie was free as an artist and translates the core of that feeling to the language of movies. Bowie was extravagant, loud and defiant, and this documentary captures his artistry as the pure creative joy that it is.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at email@example.com.