For director Brett Morgen, unlocking the mystery of David Bowie meant letting it be
Brett Morgen dashes across his office to grab his phone.
“I wanna play you something,” says the documentary filmmaker behind “Moonage Daydream,” a trippy and mesmerizing new movie about David Bowie. Morgen is recounting his first three weeks on the project, when he sat alone in this room on L.A.’s Westside and listened to Bowie’s entire catalog in the order in which the songs were written. He cues up the droning outro of “Silly Boy Blue,” a cut from Bowie’s self-titled 1967 debut, and explains that the late rock legend had composed it “at a time when he was thinking about entering a monastery to study Buddhism. It’s filled with Buddhistic references and ideas of reincarnation.”
Then Morgen plays the title track from Bowie’s “Blackstar,” which came out two days before he died at age 69 in 2016. “Hear that?” he asks, pointing out a similar descending melodic figure in the middle of the song. “I had the stems for both, and I put them in the Avid on top of each other,” he says, referring to the editing platform. “Lined up perfectly. Here he is in one of his last songs — a song about leaving and passing through — and he creates an echo of one of his first songs.” Morgen, 53, shakes his head. “It was such an important way for me to understand that it was never about tomorrow for Bowie. It was about being in the moment.”
That’s the lesson — part of the Tao of Bowie — Morgen says he wanted to get across in “Moonage Daydream,” a “nonlinear, nonbiographical, non-time-stamped film,” as the director proudly describes it, that plunges the viewer deep into the slipstream of Bowie’s imagination through an intricately (and sometimes frenetically) edited collage of archival footage and audio, much of it from a private stash that Morgen was the first outsider to access. With no talking-head interviews and little about the singer’s personal life, “Moonage Daydream,” which opened Friday in Imax and other formats, is hardly a conventional music doc of the type that’s flourished on streaming services of late. But then Bowie was hardly a conventional musician: A stylistic chameleon who never settled on a signature sound, he skirted fixed notions of gender and identity decades before it was fashionable and seemed to delight in efforts to figure out when he was serious and when he was joking.
“Bowie wasn’t about dates and facts,” says Morgen, whose previous movies include 2002’s “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” about the Hollywood producer Robert Evans, and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” a 2015 portrait of the late Nirvana frontman. “[Bowie] was mysterious, enigmatic. And I didn’t want to break that down. I was trying to create an experience, and what’s the opposite of an experience? I would argue it’s information.”
His approach has met with polarized reactions. “Moonage Daydream” won raves at May’s Cannes Film Festival, where Morgen memorably boogied down the red carpet to Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” The Times’ Carlos Aguilar said the movie “lures us into a cosmic dance of intoxicating imagery and timeless music.” But other reviewers have called it “indulgent” and “incomplete.”
Cosmic traveler and rock god David Bowie receives a worthy tribute in the unconventional documentary “Moonage Daydream,” directed by Brett Morgen.
Count Courtney Love as a fan. “Brett’s a genius,” says the Hole frontwoman, who as Cobain’s widow was involved in “Montage of Heck.” “He directed the f— out of ‘Moonage Daydream.’ I think it’s a masterpiece — like seeing ‘Fantasia’ when I was a kid. I’ve never felt so high watching a movie.” Love dismisses criticism that the film suffers because it glides over so many of the particulars of Bowie’s story. “You don’t need to know a damn thing about David Bowie and you’ll walk out of the theater inspired to be creative,” she says.
Morgen, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, met Bowie in 2007 when he pitched the musician, then in semiretirement, on a different cinematic project: a three-part narrative/nonfiction hybrid in which Bowie would play varying versions of himself, including one who “travels around the Himalayas on an elephant with a wound-up film projector showing images to the last people on Earth who’d never heard of Bowie.”
The director shrugs. “It was a performance piece,” he says. “Admittedly half-baked.” The movie never got off the ground, but Bowie and his business manager, Bill Zysblat, were intrigued, according to Morgen; when he and Zysblat reconnected after Bowie’s death, the manager eventually agreed to give Morgen access to Bowie’s collection of millions of pieces of material from his half-century career.
Merely going through the stuff — photos, paintings, TV interviews, concert footage — took two years, Morgen says. “I’d come across a [recording of] the 17th show in a row from the Outside tour,” he says of Bowie’s 1995 album, “and I’d watch the whole thing even though I knew I couldn’t use it in the film. But you never know what something might illuminate.” Having finally absorbed it all, he set about writing a script, which he called an “arduous and traumatic process” involving months of writer’s block; at one point, the married father of three even suffered a heart attack before finding his way to a structure he says was inspired by the “Iliad.” “Chaos and fragmentation were the throughlines of David’s work,” Morgen says, and so they became his watchwords for “Moonage Daydream.”
The movie works in part because of how stunning some of the source material is — none more so than a gorgeous performance of “Heroes” filmed at London’s Earls Court in 1978 that makes you feel like you’re practically onstage with Bowie. (Morgen says he spent hundreds of hours color-correcting the decades-old footage.) “I like thinking of my movies as theme park rides where you’re getting all the sights and sounds and fragrances,” says the director, who identifies his two most crucial influences as Disneyland and the Pink Floyd Laserium at Griffith Observatory.
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In its deeply immersive quality, “Moonage Daydream” — with a soundtrack of classic and more recent Bowie tunes newly stitched together by the singer’s longtime producer Tony Visconti — shares something with Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” docuseries, each episode of which Morgen says he woke up at 5 a.m. to watch as they were released one by one last Thanksgiving. “I can see the comparison,” he says, “though I like grain more than Peter does. I thought he degrained the hell out of the Beatles footage, which I couldn’t really understand because I love 16 millimeter.” He laughs. “Also, ‘Get Back’ is cinéma vérité in its purest form, and ‘Moonage’ is anything but.”
As with the Beatles’ stakeholders and Jackson’s film, Bowie’s estate — which includes his widow, model Iman (who’s seen in the doc), and his son, filmmaker Duncan Jones — gave its blessing to “Moonage Daydream,” a fact that’s been played up in the movie’s marketing, even if Morgen says he’s not sure it represents a selling point.
“Why would anyone promote something as sanctioned or official?” he asks. “I had this conversation with Asif [Kapadia],” who directed the 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy,” which was strongly criticized by the late singer’s family. “I was like, ‘I don’t understand why having Amy’s father not like your film is a negative thing,’” Morgen says. “If someone made a film about me that my mom approved, it would be awful.” Yet the director says that Zysblat gave him final cut on “Moonage Daydream” and that every decision was his own — including his choice not to dig into Bowie’s storied drug use.
“I’ve seen a few rumblings that the estate is clearly why I didn’t go into cocaine,” he says of a perceived deference toward Bowie’s survivors, who sold the singer’s songwriting catalog to Warner Music this year for a reported $250 million. “But I thought it was pretty obvious at points that David was high. I didn’t need to overstate it.” Morgen says he’s well accustomed to the feedback that his films don’t sufficiently spell things out. He recalls being called into Barry Diller’s office after the mogul saw an early cut of “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” which Diller financed. “He said, ‘It’s boring — you need to put interviews in it.’ I said, ‘If I put interviews in it, it becomes an ‘E! True Hollywood Story.’ He goes, ‘You fix it or I’ll burn it.’”
Still, Morgen insists he enjoys the kind of straightforward music documentary he was explicitly avoiding making with “Moonage Daydream.” “I loved the Bee Gees doc,” he says of Frank Marshall’s 2020 HBO film. “I cried watching it because I wish I could do the thing where you go through this very Wikipedia laundry list of checkpoints. That seems far less traumatic than being alone in this building for seven years with this material.”
He likes rock biopics, too, including “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which he says he saw more than a dozen times (and whose Oscar-winning sound team he hired for “Moonage Daydream”). “Rock stars have always been our superheroes, right? So we’re gonna get every g— artist in one of these movies until they start tanking. And I’m all for it. I’d rather see those than the Marvel universe, which I find a bit tedious.”
Morgen’s only complaint about the recent glut of rock movies is that it means he has to manage audience expectations for his work. “If you show up at my film expecting something like those, you’re gonna have a miserable time,” he says. “That’s your Achilles’ heel when you’re trying to create a new genre.” He laughs. “That sounds pretentious. But then when David was called pretentious, he said, ‘I have a master’s degree from the school of pretension.’”
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