A friend of mine once managed an art supply store in Woodstock, NY. Like many places within a few hours of New York City, Woodstock is full of people who think their liberal politics will excuse their venomous self-regard, and my friend had many stories of failed artists, minor celebrities, and landlords-cum-restaurateurs who found time during their days to drop in and become an annoyance, or worse. There was the old guy named Steve, for example, who always wore a ratty fur-collared parka and tried to lure female employees back to his studio. They all declined.
But about once a year, a gaunt, circumspect Englishman would come down from the mountain, ask my friend for advice, and together they would load up a van with painting supplies. Sometimes other customers would approach this man, and he would acknowledge them with a quiet smile. But for the most part he made his way through the store with the confident reserve of someone who has been extremely famous for just about all of his adult life. He didn’t have to insist upon himself. He was David Bowie, for god’s sake.
There is plentiful footage of Bowie painting, as well as performing, recording, interviewing, praying, and wandering around a Hong Kong mall, in Moonage Daydream, the filmmaker Brett Morgen’s overwhelming new documentary about the late musician. Morgen is a maximalist documentarian, and his film is essentially a 120-minute-long montage, splicing together live footage, late-night talk show segments, images from classic cinema, psychedelic animations, and clips pulled from Bowie’s own personal archive, attempting to paint a semi-comprehensive portrait of a man who spent his whole career restlessly slipping between personae, as if easily exhausted by himself.
Moonage properly begins with footage from the 1972 Ziggy Stardust tour, cutting from made-up fans waiting in line to grainy, zoomed-in crowd footage to the band striding towards the stage as the cheers grow and the screams increase and finally the band kicks into “Space Oddity,” the sort of concert-doc trick that always, always works on me. But the move also distances us from Bowie, placing us in the role of audience. He’s always up there, on-stage, slightly out of reach. We see the performer, and rarely the man.
Morgen proceeds in roughly chronological fashion from there, with brief cuts back to classic Hollywood and Bowie’s post-war childhood. Thankfully, Moonage avoids the worst documentary clichés. There are no famous talking heads, no fan testimonials, no spinning newspapers or cuts to vulgar popular historians. Lin-Manuel Miranda does not show up to gush about Lower Manhattan in the 1990s.
Morgen’s best decision by far is to leave the commentary to Bowie himself, laying the star’s own plentiful narration atop unattributed and frequently un-dated footage. He discourses on love, fame, artistry, but often cuts a shy, self-effacing figure, even when drinking a fly from a carton of whole milk while driving in the back of a limousine through the California desert. Of course, these clips are largely audio recorded for public consumption. Better, more intimate, are the ones from Bowie’s own archives, including his experiments with early video cameras, capturing the artmaking process when only the artist is present. They are the only times when he seems to drop his guard, because they are the only moments when the only person watching Bowie is himself.
Moonage is best when illustrating this fundamental ambiguity as a performer. Here was a generation-defining musician who made his most influential work in the period before his true fame began, who inserted the avant-garde straight into pop music, who adopted so many personae that the documentary marks time using only his haircuts. Regarding Bowie’s ambiguity, one might also say: androgynous. Morgen largely stays out of Bowie’s sexual identity, but there is an undeniable power to the talk show footage in which the musician in make-up and tights and platform boots is seated beside some uptight late-night host in jacket and tie clip, an image so striking Todd Haynes makes it the turning point for Christian Bale’s sexual self-identification in his glam pastiche Velvet Goldmine.
The documentary’s mix of plentiful concert footage and relentless montage places the film somewhere between Amazing Grace and Instrument, and indulging a present-tense-ness that tries to free Bowie from his calcified status as classic rock votive object, and turn him back into a musical artist. Of course, if he were not an icon we wouldn’t be watching this documentary, but it’s worth a shot.
And as Morgen’s film illustrates, Bowie’s fluidness, his refusal to settle as any one thing, was integral to the creation of his music. His productivity (more than an album a year between 1971 and 1980, and only slightly less frequent after that) is seemingly inseparable from his willingness to throw himself into one guise after another. From album to album he went from zenned-out folkie to glam rock alien to blue-eyed crooner to cokehead krautrocker, shuffling costumes long before he could outgrow them.
Where contemporaries like the Rolling Stones often sounded like they just wanted to be in a very good blues band, Bowie was omnivorous, seeking out new sounds, new ideas, new collaborators with the sort of ravenous artistic hunger only available to those with access to major label budgets and really hard drugs. In the miracle run from Station to Station to Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) you can hear him engaging with dozens of artists from America to Germany to North Africa to Japan, pushing the boundaries of pop music in a hundred new directions with each album. When the art rock band Shearwater covered his Berlin trilogy for WNYC’s New Sounds Festival, the results sounded so fresh that the music could be brand new, or maybe from the future.
His best work is not ironic so much as multiple, dual, frequently both commercial and antagonistic. Bowie’s vocals on “Teenage Wildlife” embrace pure feeling while his lyrics engage that feeling from a skeptical distance. He could put a space-rock anthem like “‘Heroes’” on the same album as the infernally ambient “Neuköln” and make them feel of a piece. He inspired imitators with one album and used the next to respond to them, his own sort of dizzying creative multiplication. For a period, at least, he used his pop stardom to make art, while also making his art into pop music. For a startlingly long time, he succeeded.
Morgen and his collaborators remixed the soundtrack from Bowie’s own personal stems, pushing the surround-sound mix to deafening volumes. These songs have probably never sounded better. The concert footage also illustrates how Bowie benefited immensely from talented collaborators like the guitarist and composer Carlos Alomar, who appears behind him in footage from three separate decades.
It is in the post-Let’s Dance part of Bowie’s career, beginning with his plasticine superstardom, that Morgen falters. He includes footage of a platinum blonde Bowie telling reporters, circa 1983, that he wants only to embrace love and be famous — and then provides later narration in which Bowie refers to this era as a void. I’m inclined to agree, but then I’m a snob, and I’m not the director. When confronted with the fact that his subject became one of the world’s largest musicians by making some of his worst music, Morgen does not quite know what to do. Between 1983 and his death in 2016, Bowie released sixteen full-length albums, but Morgen only includes music from a handful of them. I kept waiting for him to make an argument for the majority of his subject’s career, but outside of a live performance of the Nine Inch Nails riff “Hallo Spaceboy” (intercut with footage from Johnny Mnemonic, Run Lola Run, and, uh, Event Horizon), he largely demurs, as if afraid he might defile Bowie’s legacy.
For all his visual energy and invention, Morgen ultimately says very little about Bowie beyond the known particulars: that he was British, an artist, a superstar, a performer. In IMAX it might well prove a transcendent experience, but what will it add beyond some unreal concert footage and too many superfluous animations? What does it tell us about Bowie that his music does not?
The film concludes with more footage from the Ziggy Stardust tour, all those howling fans reaching desperately out towards him like worshippers trying to touch an icon. But Bowie is high above them, and he does not reach back.
Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.