Don’t be fooled. Moonage Daydream is not a David Bowie documentary.
Throw out any preconception based on music docos you’ve seen previously, because those will have you woefully unprepared for the experience of watching acclaimed filmmaker Brett Morgen’s latest movie.
It might be more helpful to consider it a cultural artefact, left on our planet by an advanced race of extra-terrestrials, of whom Bowie was Alien-in-Chief.
Taking a form our feeble human brains could comprehend, and the name Ziggy, this intergalactic being initially attempted to peacefully secure our assimilation through song.
Issued in the 1972 track Starman, with the help of the Spiders from Mars, the invitation could not have been more explicit.
There’s a starman waiting in the sky. He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.
Ziggy’s hazy cosmic jive resonated with the generation caught between Flower Power and punk – who knew not to blow it, ‘cause it’s all worthwhile – but the rest of humanity viewed this visitor with scepticism.
Unfamiliar with our customs, this otherworldly creature playfully created ambiguity around his gender, but it challenged our societal norms.
Looking at the breathless excitement generated by Harry Styles in a frock these days, Bowie was clearly just ahead of his spacetime.
Back in the early 1970s, without the influential power of TikTok at his fingertips, transitioning humanity to a high plane of existence was considerably harder, so this starman evolved, and evolved again.
Not exactly mirroring his surroundings as much as grotesquely exaggerating them in an effort to impress us with this feat of imitation.
A deep understanding of the human condition, and its inherent shortcomings, were writ, or so he hoped, in his extravagant mimicry.
A thin, white duke, a clown, a goblin king, a rock pirate, a linen-clad riverboat captain, an 80s dude, a regular dude, a cyber-punk and, finally, a casually elegant icon.
However, to Bowie’s dismay, humanity never did elevate to a higher wavelength before his time among us came to an end, so Morgen was chosen as the only Earthling to be given access to a rich archive of alien works left behind.
The director’s mission: assemble the works into a re-education tool that eschews peaceful assimilation of our species in favour of forced brainwashing to help us achieve true cosmic enlightenment.
So, yeah, it’s not a documentary.
“OK, you just made my day,” Morgen tells STM over a Zoom call, when confronted with the allegation his film is actually alien propaganda.
“I just have to tell you, you’re the first person who might have understood the film on the level that I was trying to create.
“I’m going to share with you something I don’t think I’ve talked about before, but, when I was conceiving the film, I had two ideas that I wrote in my journal – one was that this entire film is a transmission being broadcast to a kind of drive-in on some distant planet, where some other beings are watching the story of one of their own, like, David’s one of their type who went exploring.
“And the other idea I had was that if you took this film and buried it, and society blew itself up, when some other sentient beings came down to earth and discovered it, 10,000 years from now, they wouldn’t know if this was actual life, a fictional film, a documentary of a prophet, or one of their own, who had visited Earth 10,000 years earlier and left this message for them.”
It’s fair to say Morgen has a very different definition of “factual filmmaking”, which is no surprise to those who’ve seen his earlier movies, including the excellent Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and 2017’s Jane, an incredibly accomplished biography of primatologist Jane Goodall.
Where some documentarians see a rigid obligation to historical accuracy, this 53-year-old Californian director sees a challenge to reveal something much more elusive – truth.
You won’t find Moonage Daydream filled with facts, figures and talking heads, which are a typical doco’s stock-in-trade.
But this isn’t just about not knowing where the British singer’s 1980 LP, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), peaked on the Norwegian album charts – #3, in case you were curious.
Viewers who don’t know Bowie died in 2016 at age 69, after a private battle with liver cancer, will not learn it from Morgen’s film, because, amazingly, it doesn’t once acknowledge the singer is dead.
Or that he recorded his most famous songs in a studio, like most artists, with the help of producers (more often than not it was Tony Visconti).
If you’re expecting that, you’re confusing this film with a doco about a man who was born David Robert Jones in Brixton in the late 1940s.
“This isn’t a biography of David Jones,” Morgen confirms. “It’s a film about Bowie, and Bowie never died.”
Consequently, the audience will come away with little in the way of concrete evidence as to how the singer conceived his biggest hits, or that he was, for a considerable time, greatly addicted to cocaine, but you’ll leave the theatre positively vibrating vicariously with Bowie’s motivation for doing both.
“You can’t reduce 69 years (of Bowie’s life) to two hours, and, you know, hit all the beats, that’s not a film, that’s a Wikipedia entry,” the director explains.
“Facts, to me, don’t belong in a cinema, which isn’t to say I don’t believe in facts, but I’m trying to achieve a cinema of truth.”
The ability to chase this truth would not have been possible, though, if Morgen hadn’t been granted unprecedented access to Bowie’s archive of photographic and video materials by the singer’s estate.
The most interesting part of how this access came about is that the foundation for getting the approval was laid when Bowie was still very much alive.
“I had met with David in 2007, and, at that time, I had made a film a few years earlier called The Kid Stays in the Picture, which David and his executor were fans of,” Morgen recalls.
“I made a pitch for (Moonage Daydream), but nothing came of it, mainly because it would have required him to shoot for 40 or 50 days, and he was sort of retired.
“But (Bill Zysblat), his executor, was in the room when I pitched David and understood whatever David’s impression of that meeting was, so, nine years later, when I called him in the months after Bowie passed and explained to him what I was interested in, he felt it was quite simpatico with what they were interested in doing.”
From that point, the hardest aspect of the project was navigating the winding road of Bowie’s various incarnations in a way that would make some narrative sense, and deciding what songs and live performances to include.
Fans will be pleased to hear Morgen collaborated with Visconti to remix and remaster said songs for a theatrical environment – the result of that work is quite frankly stunning – and the final tally clocked in at over 40 tunes.
With the film following a predominantly chronological structure, trainspotters will instantly realise Bowie’s biggest hit, Space Oddity, is in the wrong place.
Morgen doesn’t fully feature the song until he uses footage of Bowie performing an acoustic version at his 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden in 1997.
But Space Oddity was actually released 28 years earlier in 1969, five days before the Apollo 11 launch, and three years and three albums before The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
It was an awkward fact, even for a filmmaker as unburdened by facts as Morgen.
“You know, the use of Space Oddity in the film, maybe I haven’t thought about it because no one’s asked me about it, but it’s one of my prouder, accomplished achievements in the film,” the director reveals.
“I tease it at the very beginning of the film, a few guitar strands of Space Oddity, it’s the first sort of known piece of music, and then I turn left and go into (the 1996 Pet Shop Boys remix of) Hallo Spaceboy.
“Yeah, that was very cheeky, and I was kind of playing with the audience’s expectations … (but) based upon where the film was beginning, which was Ziggy, if one was knows the Wikipedia of David’s life, then you know that we’ve already passed Space Oddity.”
Before that song, Bowie’s career was far from assured, with his debut album two years earlier being a commercial failure.
Space Oddity was the first example of the artist’s prodigious talent, however it was also essentially a metaphorical concept song, inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and released when Bowie was much closer to being Robert Jones than Ziggy Stardust.
By the time he played it at Madison Square Garden, though, the iconic piece of music had taken on its own life, and the metaphor it contains is a fitting description for Bowie’s own ascent to the stars.
“If you’re doing a music doc, this is sort of where you want to go, which is to take a song that we’ve heard countless times and experience it in a new light, with new meaning, and so I felt that hearing Space Oddity in that moment was exactly where it needed to exist,” the director says.
“I hope the viewer will feel that they have a deeper connection to Bowie (after watching Moonage Daydream), but, more importantly, an opportunity for self-examination, which I think was what David has always provided us – a window into our ourselves, not into the life of David Jones.”
Moonage Daydream is out in cinemas on September 15.