How do you make David Bowie boring? By treating him like an oracle. In this documentary, the British icon/singer/actor pontificates at such length, and so often, that unless you’re the most fawning of fans (or have a natural ability to filter out repetition) you’ll want to strangle director Brett Morgen. Given access to hours upon hours of audio and visual footage, by the Bowie estate, the 53-year-old American has blown the opportunity of a lifetime.
That said, the film’s first half an hour is bliss. Morgen offers highlights from the 1973 concert during which Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, strutted his stuff for the last time. Bowie’s saucy moves have been edited to induce ecstacy. Meanwhile, a TV interview with clearly a dazzled Russell Harty adds to the sense of hysteria. A young Bowie discusses his fluid sexuality with hyperactive confidence and one of many surprises is that when he bares his teeth they’re the colour and shape of the Seventies sweets, Gold Nuggets. Nothing about this creature is clean-cut and his shame-free grin is intoxicating.
All too soon, though, Bowie’s interviews with various journalists become more arch and his pronouncements pall.
It’s useful to compare Moonage Daydream to Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back. In the latter, The Beatles can’t hold forth because they’re too busy trying to create songs and impress each other (as well as family members and fêted peers). We learn things about these legends precisely because they’re distracted. By contrast, Bowie, whenever cameras and tapes are running, is completely in control. And what he does, over and over again, is fob off tame hacks with quasi-clever claptrap. Bowie on Bowie: “I’m enquiring constantly into how thing are made.” “I am emotionally very responsive to life and people.” “I’ve been so eclectic all my life.” Still awake?
Even posthumously, Bowie remains in control of this narrative
It’s not as if Bowie’s life was a bland one. But Morgen (for all the talk about danger and the testing of limits) seems determined to swerve controversy. We hear Bowie saying, “You’ve got to go through the dictatorship, you’ve got to go through the right-wing,” but it seems like a throw away comment and the subject is never touched on again. Moonage Daydream contains not a single revelation vis a vis sex or politics.
Visually, the movie’s frenetic. Morgen bombards us with arty film clips, cavorting modern dancers and whooshy, brightly-hued shapes. Is staring at a lava lamp a radical act? Morgen seems to think so. We’re also treated to shots of an impassive Bowie gliding through foreign parts and (by now boasting perfectly white nashers) going to glitzy events with his wife, Iman.
I know people who’ve met Bowie. They say he was happy wearing dingy T-shirts and doing the crossword. Alas, Morgen doesn’t seem interested in the Bowie who was down to earth.
Morgen is an able film-maker who truly loves music and movies (as you’ll know if you’ve seen Cobain: Montage of Heck or The Kid Stays in the Picture). Maybe he got too close to this project. Or maybe he’s playing the long game and will blow our minds with a second Bowie feature (there are rumours he’s not done with the man formerly known as David Jones). Whatever, this trip lacks zip.
134mins, cert 15