Cinematic odyssey through David Bowie’s life maxes out on myth

Cinematic odyssey through David Bowie’s life maxes out on myth


Moonage Daydream ★★★½
Rated M, 134 minutes.

A highlight of this wildly impressionistic documentary about David Bowie’s life and work is a TV clip in which a hapless British interviewer is interrogating Bowie about the inspiration for his flamboyantly androgynous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust.

After Bowie’s admission that he describes himself as bisexual, they get around to Ziggy’s look. For the occasion, Bowie is kitted out in full glam rock regalia – spiky orange hairdo, drop earrings the size of small chandeliers, a suit of many colours and towering platforms covered in gilt and glitter.

Moonage Daydream is the first David Bowie documentary to be sanctioned by the Bowie estate.Credit:Universal Pictures

Leaning forward to peer earnestly at these golden marvels, the interviewer asks if they’re “bisexual shoes”, at which Bowie shrieks with laughter and announces in his best falsetto, “No, silly. They’re shoe shoes!”

The film is the first one to be sanctioned by the Bowie estate and it was written, directed and produced by Brett Morgen, best known for his 2015 Nirvana documentary, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.

Morgen was given access to a previously unreleased collection of archival footage, along with Bowie’s paintings and poetry, and he spent four years putting it all together followed by another 18 months on the sound and production design.

The result – as promised – is “kaleidoscopic”, short on chronological fact but strong on self-analysis, thanks to Bowie’s voice-over. Stitched together from earlier films and interviews, it takes us through his career, focusing on his unflagging intellectual energy, which comes with a healthy measure of modesty.

He has a grasshopper mind, he says, which means that he might be a Buddhist on Tuesday and a disciple of Nietzsche by Friday.

He admits, too, to his reluctance to appear as himself. By way of illustration, the Ziggy sequences are intercut with shots of him taken later in life.

Walking through an airport in a grey jacket and a Panama hat, he might be a conventionally handsome businessman on holiday. It’s more likely, however, that he was on his way to another musical experiment, requiring yet another new character.

He says that he was often motivated by a need to put himself in “predicaments” where he felt that he was in over his head. Hence his move to Los Angeles, a city he detested, in the 1970s, followed later by three years in Berlin. The Berlin stay signalled another shift in musical style after he enlisted the help of Brian Eno, who worked with him on The Berlin Trilogy, a set of albums which met a mixed response before winning over both fans and critics.

The film is too long, yet it moves at a hectic pace, its tempo set by its concert montages which are augmented by Morgen’s fondness for lightning flashes of brilliant colour.

And just as relentless is the soundtrack, mixed and edited by a team of experts featuring Bowie’s longtime collaborator, Tony Visconti. Despite its impact on the senses, however, and all of Bowie’s talk of his search for artistic fulfilment, the film reveals very little of his feelings for those who passed through his life, or more importantly, those who stayed with him.

Reminiscing about his childhood, spent in Brixton and Kent, he speaks with chilly detachment of his mother’s lack of emotion. And although he looked up to his older half-brother, Terry Burns, who introduced him to jazz, Buddhism and the Beats, his tone is strangely dispassionate when he’s recalling Burns’ worsening schizophrenia and eventual committal to a mental hospital.

Bowie’s own drug-taking is underplayed. And there is no mention of his 10-year marriage to Angie Bowie and the son they had together. At a mid-point in his career, he says that he shelters himself from love because it prevents him from being able to write.

But in the 1990s, after meeting and marrying his second wife, the Somali-born model, Iman, he has second thoughts. “I think I’ve grown a distaste for that statement,” he says mildly. It’s probably the most personal remark we hear him make.

Nonetheless, he emerges as a compelling character – an enigmatic mischief-maker blessed with inexhaustible curiosity and a set of talents wide-ranging enough to take him anywhere that he cared to go. He might have had a grasshopper mind but it landed him in some extraordinary places.

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