‘Bowie Saved Everything; He Was A Bit Of A Hoarder’: ‘Moonage Daydream’ Director

14 September 2022 | 11:30 am | Anthony Carew

“As all great artists do, his work wasn’t about him. It’s about us. It’s about the audience.”

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“When I go to the movies, I’m not going to learn, I’m going to experience,” offers director Brett Morgen. “For some reason, with archival documentaries, there’s an onus that we’re to learn, and endure facts and information. Which can, at times, feel antithetical to creativity and art.”

The 53-year-old American filmmaker has spent his life working in the realm of documentary, but by the time he made 2015’s Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck —a film artfully riffing on Kurt Cobain’s diary— he decided that he’d found a new expressive version of the form.

“I was interested in working on and developing a new approach to archival documentary,” Morgen says. “One that would be less rooted in a biography that’s already accessible on Wikipedia. One that would allow the audience to have a more intimate and sublime, cinematic experience. Prior to knowing that I was ever going to be making a film about David Bowie, I had already arrived at this idea.”

Morgen has, indeed, made a film about David Bowie. And Moonage Daydream lives up to his dreams of reaching for the sublime, authoring a cinematic experience. Featuring not a single talking-head, it’s a movie that hopes to reflect its subject’s own creativity, that puts music at the foreground.

Like so many artists, Morgen —who was born and raised in Los Angeles— had found David Bowie’s music at a formative period in his life. “I don’t know what came first, Bowie or puberty, but it was around the same time,” recounts Morgen. “It was at a time when I was confused with my role in life, as to why I was not relating to my parents, as to why I felt so alienated, with what was happening to me sexually. And there was David, saying: It’s okay, you’re not alone, you’re wonderful.”

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Morgen felt like Bowie gave him a “cultural passport to life”, discovering writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians through Bowie’s recommendation or collaboration. That meant that the filmmaker was plenty nervous when, in 2007, he met with Bowie about the possibilities of a project involving his visual artworks and video archives. “People know he was a collector of personalities, but he was just a collector,” Morgen says. “He’d saved everything. He was a bit of a hoarder.”

Nothing came of this initial meeting, but a decade later, after Bowie’s 2016 death, Morgen returned to the Bowie estate, emboldened by the artistic success of Montage Of Heck, and had a proposition for them: “I don’t want to do a traditional documentary. I want to create a laserdome planetarium show of Bowie.”

Conceiving Moonage Daydream to “be a theatrical experience first”, Morgen spent two full years just going through all the archival material, before even setting out on trying to structure all this footage into a two-hour big-screen work. Along the way, Morgen had a heart-attack. The brush with death made him burrow deeper into the film’s themes of mortality and temporality; which are conveyed as Bowie, himself, ages on screen, saying things like “I hate to waste days”. Eventually, near the end of the film, and his life, Bowie says in an interview: “I’ve had an incredible life. It’s amazing! I’d love to do it again.”

In keeping with his ideals for the film, Morgen talks about Moonage Daydream as being a reflection of the time he made it, and what he was going through; as opposed to a dry history lesson on Bowie. Whilst there is a through-line on Bowie’s life — the beginnings, Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, the years in Los Angeles and Berlin, the straight-superstar ’80s, settling down in his advancing age — there’s nothing linear or chronological about the film.

Instead, it pirouettes through time and song, with Morgen shying away from the obvious to focus on raw live footage, old newsreels, moments of artful flourish. It’s not a cataloguing, but its own interpretive work.

“The film, to me, is a guide for how to live a satisfying and fulfilling creative life in the 21st century,” Morgen says. “This isn’t a film about David Jones. It’s not really even a film about David Bowie. It’s a film about ‘Bowie’, the performer, in quotations. As all great artists do, his work wasn’t about him. It’s about us. It’s about the audience. It’s about Bowie reflecting and refracting back to us messages, ideas and themes that can improve our lives.”

Rather than trade on nostalgia, the film positions him as a figure outside of time, connects him to the contemporary moment; Bowie’s ideas on gender, sexuality, and using the self as a canvas playing as particularly current.

“Bowie was describing the 21st century in 1971. So, it makes perfect sense that he would be one of the most relatable icons from that era,” Morgen says. “He still feels current, he still feels punk. Bowie will be one of the few artists that people will continue to respond to from that era, many decades from now.”

Since Bowie’s 2016 death, his music has continued to capture new audiences. Last year, Spotify reported that he was the most-listened-to deceased recording artist on Earth; a precipitous rise given he hadn’t cracked the Top 10 of that list in 2017-19. “Bowie continues to grow in stature since he passed,” Morgen says. “Clearly, there is a connection that Bowie continues to have with young audiences that transcends borders, transcends time.”