Jean-Luc Godard, who departed this world last week at 91, once quipped that “a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” This concept, a once-radical rebuke to the logic and coherence of classic Hollywood cinema, can seem quaint by today’s outsider art — who says we need to have these elements at all? Godard himself became more of a renegade as he aged, abandoning narrative pretense altogether.
Were he to have seen Moonage Daydream, Brett Morgen’s exhilarating essay about David Bowie, I hope Godard would have appreciated the shadow his legacy has cast. Using Bowie’s own words, Morgen liberates his subject from the strictures of linearity, and even Godard’s jumbled version of it. “There is no beginning, no end,” Bowie intones at the outset of Morgen’s film. “All is transient. Does it matter? Do I bother?” Two hours and 10 minutes later, Bowie reinforces the idea of an endless continuum, though in less nihilistic terms: “Life is fantastic. It never ends. It only changes.”
These bookends, along with other quotes about the rock star as a deity, suggest that in the grand scheme of the cosmos, Bowie isn’t gone, he’s just elsewhere. Eliding all of the hallmarks of conventional biography, especially his subject’s decline from cancer, Morgen presents us with a kind of Schrödinger’s Bowie, both alive and dead, both tethered to Earth and drifting in space. If Moonage Daydream follows any sort of structure, it’s that of the Möbius strip, forever looping in on itself. David Bowie was/is a collection of contradictions that never made sense in any traditional context, so why should any account of his life follow anybody’s rules?
Morgen spent at least four years on this passion project, the first film to be authorized by Davie Bowie’s estate. The director’s access to some 5 million items from the artist’s archive was unprecedented, and the amount and breadth and quality of never-before-seen footage — from concert performances to media appearances to casual shots of Bowie in Europe and Asia, walking almost undetected — is astonishing. But it’s ultimately how Morgen manipulates this footage into a spiritual and audiovisual odyssey that makes his film such a singular experience.
As in his 2015 documentary Montage of Heck, about Kurt Cobain, Morgen is an aggregator, or perhaps a DJ — cutting, pasting and gleaning insights from the marriage of, to borrow the title of one of Bowie’s best songs, sound and vision. Part narcotic tone poem, part fever dream, Moonage Daydream lives up to its phantasmagoric title. The journey takes us from Ziggy Stardust-era concert halls, where fans gaze upon their god with an out-of-body ecstasy; to the icy streets and studios of Berlin, where Bowie would make his most experimental and improvisatory music to date; to his influential forays in the United States and Far East; to the craters of the moon itself.
The soundtrack contains no less than 45 remixed David Bowie tracks, from “Space Oddity” to “Blackstar,” which play out in snippets or in their entirety. They are often accompanied by archival footage of Bowie’s contemporaries, influences and other outsized figures from the cultural firmament, hopscotching from Sigmund Freud to Lou Reed to Charles Chaplin to Nosferatu. There are psychedelic collages of roiling color, photo shoots saturated in lurid neon, and black-and-white, vertiginous echoes of the surrealist art of Man Ray and Duchamp. In their teeming totality, Morgen paints a picture, through his unpredictable and lightning-fast montages, of Bowie’s many omnivorous appetites: spiritual, sexual, musical.
And then there are his words, spoken to interviewers and taken from other less tangible contexts, that have the weight and timelessness of existentialist philosophy. “None of us exist,” he says, looping figures from John Lennon to Mick Jagger into his musing. “We’re in the Twilight Zone. We are the false prophets.”
Morgen essentially puts Bowie on the couch. In an interview, Bowie suggests that the many personae he cultivated were masks to hide his true self. He reveals his insecurity about his visual art (there was no need for that — his paintings, shown here for the first time, have an assured, Edvard Munchian intensity), his embrace and then skepticism of comfort — because how can a contented person make great art? — and the restless spirit that led to the constantly changing alchemy of his career. Stasis, for David Bowie, meant death.
Which is why this magisterial and mercurial film would no doubt have pleased its subject. Perhaps somehow, in ways science has not yet been able to grasp, he is still able to experience it, wherever his consciousness is floating. Because matter, of course, can never be created or destroyed. We’re all stardust.
MOONAGE DAYDREAM. Director: Brett Morgen; Distributor: Neon; Rated PG-13; Now playing at most area theaters