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There’s a famous, often-quoted image in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth in which David Bowie’s character, Thomas Jerome Newton, a new arrival on the planet, is shown half-cut and hypnotised by a bank of numerous TV screens: a Babel of channels which he is hooked on surfing. It’s famous not least for the sense that it rhymed with Bowie’s real-life ability to absorb and refract the proliferating media chaos of the late 20th century. It’s also, you suspect, a touchstone for Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream, a gloriously maximalist, often psychedelically overloaded blitz of Bowie’s music, paintings, ideas, influences and interviews across the 50-plus years of his career.
The clips, like the hits, just keep coming. With access approved by the Bowie estate to reportedly millions of unseen archival items, Moonage Daydream is replete with new live material, which, remastered by Bowie producer Tony Visconti, sounds remarkable: an early All the Young Dudes and an incandescent Jean Genie with Jeff Beck on lead guitar in particular. Morgen also weaves a constant stream of visual references and samples, at an almost subliminal rate of turnover: glimpses of Murnau, Keaton, Lang, Oshima, Kubrick, Roeg, flashes of Bowie’s acting and paintings, and occasional bursts of animation interpreting Bowie’s chords and harmonies as super-saturated blooms of colour. Taking Bowie’s fascination with the cosmos very literally, Morgen devises an opening sequence in which a moon turns slowly and a female astronaut with a tail (?) moves across a lunar landscape. The viewer, bumping along on this torrent of information, might be put in mind of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982), or even Adam Curtis’s more recent rewiring of documentary’s visual grammar, as a hypertext of allusion and interconnection. It’s of a piece with Morgen’s previous work in music documentary, though: most recently Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015), which essentially interpreted the Nirvana singer’s early artistic development through animations developed from his notebooks and mixtapes, and Crossfire Hurricane (2012), a kind of tone-poem collage of The Rolling Stones’ first two decades.
And as with those films, Morgen dispenses with the staple of almost every other music documentary: talking-head interviews with friends, family, critics, associates. With some artists this might represent a risk, but in Bowie’s case, he’s said so much of interest that Morgen has more than enough material to use, and it’s a pleasant change to watch a documentary not stuffed with pre-fabricated opinions and over-rehearsed memories. Outside voices come from Bowie’s archival TV interviews, with figures like Dick Cavett, Valerie Singleton, Mavis Nicholson, and a sneering Russell Harty. These moments are like fossils from a different media era. Bowie, an actor forced in conversation to improvise, is playful but serious, shy but candid; there are none of the PR-approved laugh lines of the modern-day chat show.
As an extended free-association, a riff in the key of Bowie, Moonage Daydream proceeds chronologically, but Morgen is never tied down to dry narrative, not least because almost nothing is footnoted: dates are sparse, captions and citations absent, except where offered by Bowie himself, as in his comically offhand explanation of the Ziggy Stardust persona (just something he knocked together out of Japanese kabuki and fringe New York rock ’n’ roll, like anyone would have done). It gives time a certain elasticity: Bowie’s 1970s get the most screen time, understandable given that there are artists working today who have based entire careers on ideas or aesthetics culled from a single year of his work in that decade. After his commercial peak in the 1980s and marriage to Iman, Bowie’s 1990s and 00s flash past as domestic bliss and occasional prophetic comments on the internet’s new forms of chaos. Morgen addresses Bowie’s distant relationship with his mother, and the loss of his half-brother and first inspiration, Terry, who changed his life by introducing him to Kerouac and Coltrane sensitively; if his first wife and family (including son and film director Duncan Jones) are mentioned, though, I must have blinked.
The through-line Morgen finds in Bowie’s long career and discography is ambitious, very explicitly taking him at his most cosmic and existential, from the very opening quotes in which Bowie discusses Nietzsche and the disappearance of God. It’s a pitch of thought I didn’t initially think the film could sustain: Bowie was fascinated by the surface detail of pulp and pop culture, and the way they could articulate profound and radical ideas, but would never have presented himself as a philosopher. But Morgen threads together Bowie’s recurring reflections on his own existential and even spiritual development. Trying to find meaning in a transient world; trying to find himself, or even any self at all, in a string of transient identities; trying to find meaning in pleasing others, and then himself again. And in his last decade and last statements, The Next Day and Blackstar, the sense that Bowie, like Thomas Jerome Newton, was allowing five decades of work and art to stream through him, all channels open.
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