A review of the David Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream
Lunar Reverie is a documentary about David Bowie that does everything it can to avoid being a typical documentary – and it succeeds. It is not a cradle-to-grave survey of the performer’s life, although most of it follows a chronological order. It’s not a concert film, although there are a lot of images of him on stage. All of the man facts come straight from the horse’s mouth, via old music videos, but half of them contradict each other. Yet you walk away feeling like you’ve seen a side of this beloved artist you’ve never experienced before. It’s quite an achievement.
The unusual approach creates more of a “David Bowie experience” than a movie, which for many fans (and maybe a few noobs) is far more valuable than another look at a disgruntled famous guy at school, signing a deal, writing songs, defying gender norms – all the boilerplate biographical stuff. Gen Xers may remember standing in line to see laser rock shows at planetariums when they couldn’t get tickets (or get parental permission) to attend a concert. . When Lunar Reverie opens on IMAX screens, it will bring a bit of that not-quite-there-but-still-somewhere magical return.
Although the film does not rely solely on the art of editing, it is essentially a long edit. More exactly, a collage. It could easily get boring very quickly, but director Brett Morgen has a mastery of the material. And an artist as temperamental as Bowie deserves (no, demands!) unorthodox treatment. Talking heads with lower thirds, even in the Spatial oddity police, just won’t do.
Splashed across the screen are some great concert material (thanks DA Pennebaker, David Mallet and everyone in between) and old interview footage (some from cool West German TV, some from The Dick Cavett Show). The images are taken from anywhere Bowie has appeared on camera meaning fashion shoots, promotional material and also movies like The man who fell to earthNicolas Roeg’s classic sci-fi cavalcade that fit well with Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” period, as well as oddities like Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.
This leads to a central problem with Lunar Reverie, which is, depending on your perspective, either a brave move or a failure. Someone who buys a ticket with a familiarity level of ‘Yeah, ‘Modern Love’, ‘Rebel, Rebel’ and, uh, ‘Life on Mars?’ It’s David Bowie, isn’t it? will be quite baffled by this movie. To use the Mr. Lawrence For example, they might wonder why on earth this rock star keeps showing up at a Japanese POW camp.
Morgen’s consistency in refusing to give context to some (most!) of these visual counterpoints is, in this critic’s opinion, a panacea against boring documentaries. He goes further, with spasmodic journeys through associative images. An old interview with Bowie talking about performance art (offering details about the character of Ziggy Stardust) inserts excerpts from Metropolis, Mickey Mouse, Buster Keaton, nerdy 50s sci-fi and real space footage in the blender. It’s great because it’s tuned to those cool Mick Ronson guitar licks and always finds a groove. But audiences looking for a little more clarity might think, “Wwhat am i looking at?
Themes emerge. Bowie can never sit still, he must always reinvent himself. Thus, after the shattering interplanetary success of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars (and his music-hall-adjacent songwriting style), decadent years ago spent in Los Angeles. (Watch handsome young Bowie drink 2% milk straight from the carton!) Then there’s the retreat to Berlin to strip rock n’ roll down to its subatomic particles with the Down, “Hero,” and Tenant scrapbooks. But then the man who says he only wants to make hyper-intellectual art, decides he wants to make the world a happy, poppy place, and records let’s dance. And then, once again, he says that anyone who’s too popular (and too rich) must be doing something wrong, and rushes into more esoteric territory.
The cycle goes on and on, and Morgen lets you try to figure out Bowie’s psychology for yourself. Except for a brief shoutout to Brian Eno, none of Bowie’s collaborators get name verification. Not Tony Visconti, not Carlos Alomar, not Hunt and Tony Sales! (Indeed, no mention of Tin Machine!) With such a vast career, a lot of things get left out (White Noise Black Tieyou were a ‘The high point of the 90s for many, even if Morgen dissed you!). But there are still treasures buried here, especially many of Bowie’s paintings and sculptures. (There are some of his ‘The “video art” of the 70s which does not pass so well on the screen, but which invites to try new innovations.)
If there is any message at all in Lunar Reverie, it is secondary to the experiential nature of the film. It’s barely a hit. We go to a concert to marvel, not necessarily to learn life lessons. Leave that sort of thing for the other less important documentaries.