Music

The David Bowie Documentary Makes a Mess of a Velvet Goldmine

It’s full of sound and vision, signifying nothing.

A psychedelic image shows a spattering of color chemical washes flooding an image through which we can faintly see a downcast David Bowie
David Bowie in Brett Morgan’s new documentary Moonage Daydream. Neon

Like many teens of my generation, I tromped off to the planetarium several times in early adolescence to see “Laser Floyd” and “Laser Zeppelin” shows, in which the technology invented to animate maps of the stars and other astronomical wonders was turned instead to projecting cartoonish laser squiggles synched to the cadences of stadium rock tracks. Perhaps because I wasn’t much of a stoner, the appeal of these whizbang spectacles wore off fast. It even helped put me off of prog and classic rock overall: If this was supposed to be some kind of ultimate experience of the grandeur of the music, maybe that grandeur wasn’t all that grand? There was far more creativity in an average hour of early 1980s music videos, especially from the new wave, punk, and synth bands. Most of those acts were heavily influenced by the previous decade of work by David Bowie, who retroactively became a watchword for me as for so many other misfits and ravagingly curious art nerds in the past half-century, including a whole new younger cohort since his death in 2016.

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All of which might help explain why I’m among an apparent minority of viewers pungently disappointed by the new Bowie documentary Moonage Daydream, assembled over the past four-plus years by director Brett Morgen. The estate gave Morgen the run of Bowie’s huge personal archive of footage, recordings, art, documents, interviews, and more—the same trove that gave fans the wonderful touring gallery exhibition David Bowie Is—and Morgen chose to turn it into Laser Bowie.

A more sophisticated and at times insightful version, granted, but foremost an “IMAX experience” of sensory saturation above all other values. This isn’t just me being snarky. Morgen himself told the Los Angeles Times last week that his two most crucial influences here are “the Pink Floyd Laserium at Griffith Observatory” and Disneyland. “I like thinking of my movies as theme park rides.”

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And hey, what don’t you get from a rollercoaster that you might want from a documentary? Just little things like any sense of context or chronology, the identification of key figures, et cetera. I don’t mind that the narration is all excerpts of Bowie interviews. As one of the most erudite and eloquent rock stars ever, Bowie has no need of the rote talking heads in most music docs. But he also famously switched his stories and ideological lines frequently over the years, and it’s vital to interpreting him to know when the quotes come from. But this director is actively opposed to even on-screen captions. As Morgen told the LA Times, “I was trying to create an experience, and what’s the opposite of an experience? I would argue it’s information.”

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That stance strikes me as not only (unintentionally) quasi-Trumpian but squarely hostile to Bowie as an artist. Yes, he generated mystique and contradiction, but he did so at the place where experience and information meet, every album laced with backstory and further signposts to artistic, cultural, philosophical, and sociological inspirations. What he loved was information overload. He was never anti-intellectual, except during the mid-1980s Let’s Dance phase when—newly recovered from years of drug addiction, broke, without a record contract, and usurped by a new generation that recycled all his past ideas (none of which you’d know from Morgen’s movie)—he conveniently decided the one style he’d never tried was mainstream pop.

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Moonage Daydream includes some fascinating quotes in which Bowie seems to repudiate that whole phase as “the vacuum of my life.” But I would bet their placement is misleading: He often said he regretted the couple of throwaway albums after the mass success of Let’s Dance, but he never disowned the excellent hit album he’d made with Chic (and later Daft Punk) studio mastermind Nile Rodgers, who by the way is never mentioned in this film. Morgen also accompanies his segment on this period with a flashback to an early 1970s Ziggy Stardust-era concert performance of “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide,” converting Bowie’s own song into preachy ammunition against its maker. This is intercut with similarly heavyhanded and garish imagery of monsters and demons in cages from somewhere or other (either original or maybe from the vaguely contemporaneous Jim Henson movie Labyrinth, from which Bowie’s role as “the Goblin King” has lingered as affectionately recalled goth kitsch).

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That’s perhaps the most Laser Bowie moment in the whole film, unless that would be the color-starbursts and other visual effects that accompany “Sound and Vision” (overliterally illustrating “blue, blue, electric blue”) and reappear whenever Morgen can’t seem to come up with any another transition.

If Morgen’s previous music documentary, about Kurt Cobain, was titled Montage of Heck, this one might be called Montaged as Fuck. The crossfades and superimpositions are almost perpetual, and too often the effect is to slurry the material into a sinking quicksand. The grist is often great—little-seen concert footage, alternate versions of songs famous and obscure, clips from earlier documentaries, acting roles, and so on—but their potency can’t survive being mashed and VFX’d into a two-hour-and-20-minute music video. What could?

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Oases of quiet or intimacy are rare. The section that reels back to Bowie’s suburban London childhood in a family with, he says, “an awful lot of emotional-spiritual mutilation,” is moving and illuminating of the isolation and alienation that runs through his work. Bowie’s voiceovers throughout refer frequently to his fragile sense of self before his late-life marriage and contentment with Iman. Morgen’s treatment is a little off-the-rack Freudian, like a lot of Hollywood origin-story psychologizing, which was also true of the better but also flawed Montage of Heck. Why did these particular hurt boys react in the particular creative ways they did, among all the other hurt boys in the world?

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However, the Cobain film also had its home movies of the Nirvana singer and Courtney Love together, a window into their controversial partnership and their states of mind at the height of the 1990s media circus. There’s no equivalent here, except some rather prosaic clips of Bowie walking down hallways or around markets and temples on international trips. Instead, Bowie’s roles in films like The Man Who Fell to Earth or Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, or in stage plays like The Elephant Man, are presented almost as if they were footage of his own life. This is an apt, even poetic Bowie-esque ambiguity, but after more than two hours of repetition, the irony palls.

Getting behind Bowie to the “real” David Jones was always a mug’s game, and I didn’t want Bowie home movies or gossip. What I did hope for from a film like this was documentation of the artist at work, making his music. But like far too many cinematic treatments of music, this film seems all but indifferent to that process—it’s actually slightly better with his visual art. Morgen’s creative edits and selections of songs testify that he does have a love for and sensitivity to the music; there are fragments from early cuts like “The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” that I’ve never gotten around to hearing before. But aside from a brief sequence about his work with Brian Eno in Berlin, the film ignores Bowie’s collaborators—a middling musician, he was the furthest thing from a one-man band—and never takes us inside any studios or rehearsals. We get no real glimpses of his interactions with longtime producer Tony Visconti, even though he is this film’s music supervisor, let alone Mick Ronson or Earl Slick or Carlos Alomar or Reeves Gabrels, just to mention a few of the guitarists. (Again, none of whom are even identified when they are on screen.)

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Puzzlingly, after the film is so scornful about his 1980s music, it does zilch with Bowie’s lately more widely recognized creative revival in the 1990s, and scants even on the inventive ferment of the secretive making of his final work Blackstar, and the shock of his death two days after its 2016 release. Instead, at the end, we get multiple taped mini-homilies about individuality and making every day count, as if Bowie’s life were a parable that required a lesson—and as if, if it did, the lesson would be so banal.

There’s been a lot of hype around the disruptive, “revolutionary” nature of Moonage Daydream among music documentaries. Bold claims indeed after the past year has seen both Peter Jackson’s groundbreaking Beatles studio resurrection and the far more rigorous use of montage to highlight multiple perspectives in Todd Haynes’ film about one of Bowie’s key influences, the Velvet Underground. After Jean-Luc Godard’s death last week, I went back to rewatch his far-out 1968 Rolling Stones documentary Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One), and if you want to talk revolutionary, few music films have ever come close to that movie’s leaps back and forth between the Stones in the studio, Black Panthers in junkyards, and sci-fi Maoist pornography. It’s far from Godard’s best, but it’s no Space Mountain ride. By contrast, Morgen’s film feels like he panicked in the face of his overwhelming wealth of material and scrambled to cram it in—an enormous, maybe one-time opportunity squandered.

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Not that Bowie fans and the Bowie-curious should skip Moonage Daydream, because there are discoveries in it you must see and hear. But it has little else of substance to offer the very knowledgeable, and is bound to wrong-foot many neophytes. It’s like hoping for deep insights into the work of Van Gogh or Klimt from one of those “immersive” exhibits that supersize and animate them: These are public Instagram moments, the poster in lieu of the painting, the gift shop in lieu of the gallery. Maybe Moonage Daydream is reflecting back the David Bowie our cultural moment deserves, but it’s not the one Bowie himself merits, nor the one that should be sought after by all you pretty things yet to come.

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