Near the start of Moonage Daydream, a new David Bowie documentary that is generously proportioned to the point of overkill, the director Brett Morgen – who had millions of audio and visual items put at his disposal by the singer’s estate – cuts to a 1970s schoolgirl sobbing after failing to meet her idol. “He’s smashing!” she splutters through a veil of snot and tears.
Well, he was, wasn’t he? Morgen has said that he couldn’t recall whether puberty or Bowie came first in his life, and I can identify with that. As a teenager in the 1980s, I had his albums on constant wheezing rotation on my Walkman. In the 1990s, I saw him play live on four occasions, three of those in the space of a week. A decade ago, I even wrote to his PR to ask whether Bowie might agree to an interview with this magazine solely to discuss his acting. I still reread the reply sometimes: “I will certainly make David aware of the kind invitation but…” Never mind the “but” – David Bowie was aware of my email!
All of which is to explain that I am the ideal viewer for Moonage Daydream. Musically, it is magnificent. Around 45 numbers have been lovingly remastered by Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie on and off from 1969, and the sound mixer Paul Massey. It was sensible of Morgen to eschew talking heads, and to mimic visually the texture of collage (as he did in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck). The movie proceeds chronologically – Ziggy, Los Angeles, Berlin, the stadium years – while still leaping back and forth through time, beginning with the Pet Shop Boys’ blistering 1996 remix of “Hallo Spaceboy”.
The no-facts, no-dates approach liberates Moonage Daydream from convention, though it isn’t immune to coasting or cliché. If Morgen didn’t delegate the choice of old film clips (Un Chien Andalou, The Seventh Seal, Metropolis) to a bored intern clutching a copy of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, then he may just as well have done. A lack of variety in the editing grows increasingly deleterious. One retina-frazzling sequence set to a live romp through “Cracked Actor” is impressive. A similar one five minutes later, accompanied now by “Aladdin Sane”, suggests a two-for-one approach to crescendos.
Not that there isn’t plenty to amuse. Any child of the 1970s will pine for the TV interviewers featured here, such as Russell Harty, mock-scandalised and secretly naughty (“Are those bisexual shoes?” he purrs), or Mavis Nicholson, her fond maternal probing forever haunted by the possibility of sternness, as though she hasn’t quite decided whether to offer her guests a Bourbon biscuit or sanction their benefits.
The sight of Bowie rarely palls: the Ziggy plumage like a marmalade ushanka, the custard-coloured clothes-peg teeth a monument to British dentistry. Always there is the electrified self-awareness, as if he is dissecting each experience from a future vantage point. Sitting opposite him in 1979, Valerie Singleton asks if he is playing a character right now. “One wonders,” he says.
Any 140-minute film dominated by a single perspective stripped of contradiction risks drifting into hagiography. It’s understandable that Morgen is more interested in Low than low points. The singer’s approving comments about fascism, his Tin Machine debacle, his reading of the Lord’s Prayer at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert – these are conspicuous by their absence. But it is the use of Bowie’s interviews sewn together into a commentary as soporific as any podcast that turns Morgen’s cinematic valentine into a sort of poison-pen letter.
Rock star interviews can be tolerable individually and cringe-worthy en masse (in a clip not used here, Bowie told Singleton: “I’m very thick”) and these are no exception. “All is transient – does it matter?” the singer asks in the Mogadon tones of a meditation tape. In the early 1980s, he plots his next move: “The East beckons me,” he says, presumably not referring to Norwich.
On and on it goes: “I am emotionally very responsive to life and people… I think the search is the thing… We’ve got to be positive about our days on the planet.” Play these remarks end to end and they begin to resemble the personal statement on a Ucas form. Had the film removed Bowie’s speaking voice entirely, it might have preserved the mystery he spent so long cultivating. After all, it’s hard to be enigmatic when you won’t stop droning on about yourself.
“Moonage Daydream” is in cinemas now
[See also: How Jean-Luc Godard changed cinema]
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Succession