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David Bowie Moonage Daydream
Moonage Daydream, 2022 (Film Still)

Moonage Daydream is a hallucinogenic trip through the life of David Bowie

Director Brett Morgen talks us through his new documentary film, Moonage Daydream: an immersive, non-linear trip through the pop icon’s creative history

Is there anything left to say about David Bowie? After countless books, articles, reissues, documentaries, anniversaries, reappraisals, and obituaries, is there anything left to unpack about one of the most ubiquitous, beloved and revolutionary pop stars of all time? 

Many would argue not. However, extracting untold stories, personal details and biographical nuggets was of no appeal to Moonage Daydream director Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Jane). “It’s not a film about David Jones or David Bowie,” he says. “It’s about ‘Bowie’. The biographical parts were of no interest to me, nor do I think they would be something that David would have been interested in having me explore.” 

Given the family’s blessing to make the film and with access to Bowie’s personal archive, containing five million assets, the resulting film is a non-linear music doc that explodes, loudly, as an audio-visual celebration. It’s so loud, in fact, that when it had its UK Premiere earlier this summer at Sheffield Doc/Fest, where I caught up with Morgen, the live sound mix was so intense that the opening footage of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in 1972 had the cinema seats literally rattling.

It was always intended to be an explosion of sound and colour, with Morgen so set against following the tropes of linear biographical storytelling that he even wrote his own rulebook for the film. “I had a 48-page manifesto,” he says. “Rather than having a traditional script, I needed a guide for myself on how to construct this experience. The rules included: no dates, no biographical information and no timeline.” 

There are no talking heads or voiceover either and despite some minor biographical concessions, that Morgen “agonised over”, it’s a film rooted in visual spectacle – a kaleidoscopic exploration of Bowie as an artist, which heightens the potency of his music, words, and creative process. “Unlike a lot of other musicians, David has a philosophy and very specific approach that he's created towards art,” Morgen says. “So, I was able to incorporate those techniques into the construction of the film. It’s pretty rare to have a subject provide the DNA like that – the mapping for the excursion.” 

Morgen’s own life path would even end up being somewhat shaped by this excursion map too. At the beginning of production, he had a heart attack and spent four days in a coma. And even though he worked on this film obsessively, tirelessly, and “harder than anything else I’ve ever worked on” he’s keen to point out it was Bowie that saved him, not nearly killed him. “This film didn't cause a heart attack,” he says. “It wasn't from the stress of the film. The relationship between the heart attack and the film is that the film helped me recover.”

Working on the film, Morgen began to adopt some of Bowie’s philosophies toward art and life as they became manifest on screen. This shifted the tone and narrative of the film, as Morgen leaned more into the idea of Bowie as a dedicated figure who was committed to art, pushing himself to the extreme, but also one who knew when to withdraw and let love and domesticity play as vital a role. “The lessons I’ve learned are now being put into action,” he says. “I still am obsessed with my work but I learned to not allow the work to define what and who I am.”  

Perhaps, as a result, the film is an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of Bowie as an unimpeachable music icon, often drifting more towards a tribute than a document, as it smoothly glides over controversies or topics such as serious drug abuse. However, Morgen simply feels that’s the only story that could be told with the material provided. “Some people may think that it should be more critical of the subject,” he says. “I approached this with an open eye, I didn’t have an agenda, but with Bowie I don’t think there was a possibility to create a film that was more critical of him with the media that I had access to.”

In fact, Morgen has become so obsessed with Bowie that he’s unable to listen to any other music, even after a seven-year production period on the film, and speaks about him in almost guru-like terms. “Watching all that footage, there was nothing I witnessed that was not awe-inspiring on a moment-to-moment, day-to-day basis,” he says. “I have no qualms about this. I'm not an objective filmmaker, I'm a method director. I try to create an experience of the subject in order to get there. I need to understand how my characters sleep, eat and drink, even though I may never mention what they may sleep, eat or drink. My appreciation and respect for him just continued to grow every day. I don't have enough descriptions for it...I've never encountered another human being as inspiring.”  

The film is primarily focused on Bowie’s imperial decade of the 1970s and even though it quickly zips through the 90s and 2000s, a period some view as an artist lost in the wilderness chasing a zeitgeist that he once set, Morgen feels this is an era that is deeply misunderstood. “People dismissed David as trying to exploit culture and trying to get with youth music and shit,” he says. “What’s so frustrating in retrospect, is that was what David always did. He always appropriated popular music and made it his own.” 

Given that it’s a film intended to capture the experience of Bowie as an ever-changing artist rather than the background story of David Jones, it was constructed and designed specifically for cinemas, to allow colours to pop, guitars to crunch and Bowie’s voice to soar. So, Morgen is somewhat evangelical about experiencing the film as it was intended. “I spent the past year working on a sound design that you’re not going to get at home,” he says. “So, you’re not getting the same film and please don't offend me by saying it is the same. It’s the chosen medium that the artist wants to work in and that is how one should see their work. It’s like having an art show and being like, ‘oh you don’t need to come, I’ll send you pictures’. I spent so much time and energy trying to create something for a space that I hope it can be experienced there.” 

Moonage Daydream in IMAX from September 16, and in UK cinemas from September 23