Director Brett Morgen (also credited as the film’s writer, producer and editor) clearly has a passion for the work of David Bowie, but his survey of the subject comes across more as a mixtape of ideas he found interesting rather than as a cohesive work.
The Production: 3/5
Moonage Daydream is a difficult film to quantify.
It’s not quite a documentary; the film makes no attempt to educate or inform, eschewing traditional non-fiction filmmaking techniques like contextualizing interviews and informative chyrons. It’s not a concert film; though it features clips from many, many songs, it doesn’t present a single performance of one in full. It doesn’t have any revelatory, never-before-seen footage; instead, it draws from previously available live recordings and television interviews. Its makers bill it as a “cinematic experience,” but while the “experience” part can’t be quibbled with, its hodgepodge of low-quality source elements often make it anything but “cinematic.”
Director Brett Morgen (also credited as the film’s writer, producer and editor) clearly has a passion for the work of David Bowie, but his survey of the subject comes across more as a mixtape of ideas he found interesting rather than as a cohesive work. The first time you see footage of David Bowie riding up an M.C. Escher-esque escalator, narrated with the sound of Bowie’s musings on creating, it seems profound; two hours later, the same looping footage starts feeling trite. Morgen also makes the limiting decision to focus almost exclusively on Bowie’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, with only a few brief moments acknowledging the mid-1990s portion of his career. Morgen essentially discards the arguably career-best material that Bowie put out in the 2000s, including the incredible “Heathen” album and the elegiac record “Blackstar,” released mere days before Bowie’s death. These omissions give a false sense that Bowie’s vitality was extinguished decades before his passing, when nothing could be further from the truth. (Bowie’s orchestration of that final work, written and recorded in the shadow of his mortality, exploring the big questions of existence and intentionally timed for release just before his passing of a cancer he kept secret from the world, is a subject worthy of its own film.)
Aurally, Moonage Daydream is most reminiscent of “Love,” the soundtrack to the Beatles’ Cirque du Soleil show. Bits and pieces of familiar songs and arrangements weave in and out of focus, sometimes presented in versions wholly familiar, other times remixed with modern sonic textures and effects. Visually, the film seems like an 1990s-era MTV documentary, with short snippets from various sources and time periods flying by in almost kaleidoscopic fashion. Archival clips from movies and records popular in the eras being covered also litter the proceedings, ostensibly to give the viewer context for the zeitgeist that Bowie’s work seemed to comment on.
While good intentions abound, I am at a loss as to who this film is meant for, and I say that as a David Bowie fan. It’s not particularly satisfying as a documentary, as existing fans will not come away with new insights, and viewers unfamiliar with Bowie’s work will struggle to contextualize what is presented here. It’s not illuminating or inviting like “No Direction Home,” which successfully explained the allure of early Bob Dylan to newcomers and longtime fans alike. It’s not satisfying as a concert film and thus not particularly suited for rewatching, because there are no complete performances included that one might long to hear again. It’s no “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is,” offering fans a chance to revel in great songs being brilliantly performed. It doesn’t immortalize a single moment in time, as “The Last Waltz” expertly does. It doesn’t offer much by way of intimacy on the subject, failing to penetrate the defensive layers that Bowie built around himself in his public personas. There’s nothing remotely approaching the kind of home movie verisimilitude that “Imagine: John Lennon” offered. As an attempt to convey the appeal and experience of Bowie’s era, its length works against it; what seems exciting and fresh at the beginning becomes repetitive and dull by the time its two-hour-and-fourteen-minute running time concludes. There’s a great idea for a film in here, but the material might have been better served as either a shorter non-linear experience or as a longer, more detail-oriented documentary examination.
Despite its hypnotic presentation, Moonage Daydream is ultimately all flash and no depth. Disappointingly, it refuses to fully engage the entirety of its subject’s output, instead presenting retreads of footage and periods that have been extensively (and more definitively) covered elsewhere. The songs are transcendent, but the film is not.
3D Rating: NA
Moonage Daydream is presented on Blu-ray in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (the cover incorrectly states 1.85:1, though the difference there is so slight as to be inconsequential). Because the film is comprised entirely of extant material of different sources and quality (often shifting from 1.78:1 to 1.33:1 and back again), it is difficult to assign a numerical value to the overall experience. Television interviews and performances shot in standard definition appear to be exactly that. 16mm excerpts from 1970s-era concert films look almost exactly as they appeared in their original sources. 35mm performance footage from the 1980s-era fares the best. I will say that the varying quality of the source material never took me out of the film, and that the mastering of the film for Blu-ray does not appear to introduce any additional compression artifacts or visual anomalies into the mix.
Hands down, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack to Moonage Daydream is the film’s best attribute. There’s rarely a moment of quiet, with songs and effects creating an active soundscape that surrounds the listener at nearly all times. Familiar songs are frequently excerpted and layered atop one another, creating sounds that are simultaneous familiar and new. Bowie’s voice is frequently heard, often pulled from interview appearances and repurposed as a sort of narration, albeit one that is as much a performance as Ziggy Stardust.
Special Features: 0.5/5
The disc’s lone bonus feature is the film’s theatrical trailer. What a missed opportunity! While it is understood that licensing additional clips for inclusion as bonus features would have added to the budget without benefitting the film proper, I would have loved an interview or commentary with Brett Morgen. It would have been interesting to hear why he focused on the portions of Bowie’s life that he ultimately chose, and illuminating to discover why he felt other equally acclaimed moments were deemed unworthy of inclusion. Alas, there’s nothing like that to be found here.
Trailer (02:07) – The film’s theatrical trailer gives a good sense of what the film itself is like. If it seems like the coolest thing ever, you’ll likely enjoy the film. If it seems incomprehensible and cluttered, you’ll likely feel the same way about the film itself.
Moonage Daydream somehow succeeds at the impossible: it makes David Bowie seem dull. The film begins with much potential, but it soon becomes apparent that rather than peeling back the layers to investigate the totality of Bowie’s output, or trying to answer the question of what made Bowie tick, director Brett Morgen will instead be delivering more of the same throughout the entirety of the film’s long runtime. While Morgen’s kaleidoscopic editing seems a promising approach at the start, his utilization of the same bag of tricks again and again becomes less illuminating and rather monotonous by the time the film limps to the finish line. By acting as if Bowie’s career finished decades before it actually did, Morgen limits the film to repeating imagery and material that have been better covered elsewhere, while denying viewers the poetic finish that Bowie himself orchestrated for his life and career. Despite its shortcomings, Bowie fans will probably still find moments of joy in watching the film, but may prefer to sample it via rental rather than committing to ownership. Non-fans of Bowie will almost certainly be lost. I am glad to have seen it but cannot imagine revisiting it regularly; I sincerely wish I had enjoyed it more than I did.
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