A Lad Insane
Directed by Brett Morgen
Starring David Bowie
Released September 16th, 2022
A documentarian best known for his films about The Rolling Stones (Crossfire Hurricane) and Nirvana (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck), Brett Morgen now presents his most personal work to date: Moonage Daydream, an artful, impressionistic examination of David Bowie’s legendary artistic career. A paint-by-numbers documentary would tell us that Bowie was born David Jones, discuss his relationships with his family and peers, and then go through his career album by album. But it would be a fool’s errand for a documentarian to attempt to encapsulate everything Bowie accomplished, excelled, or failed at during his lifetime. Understanding this, Morgen presents a loosely chronological overview of Bowie’s life that sometimes skips big moments, instead focusing on his unending drive to create.
Seeing this on IMAX was quite the experience, both for the opportunity to savor the imagery projected on such a huge screen and perhaps more importantly for the sheer volume of the soundtrack. In addition to writing and directing the film, Morgen also designed and edited the musical mashups heard throughout. These impressive soundscapes are also available on a soundtrack album, produced by longtime Bowie associate Tony Visconti. Early on, Morgen assaults the viewer with a version of the song Hallo Spaceboy mixed so loud that I felt he was daring the audience to leave. However, the film isn’t all bombast, as we are also treated to a striking live performance of Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud, and a joyous early rendition of All the Young Dudes.
The film weaves the mythmaking and spectacle of Bowie’s live concerts with the sound and vision of various records, interviews, music videos, and chat show appearances. Bowie’s various bands are featured during live footage, so keep an eye out for Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew, Mick Ronson, Gail Ann Dorsey, Carlos Alomar, and many additional talented musicians. Moonage Daydream may be dressed up as a concert film, but ultimately, it’s more interested in Bowie’s philosophies than his hit singles.
The film mainly focuses on the Ziggy Stardust and Let’s Dance eras, and this makes sense, as those are the most popular of Bowie’s records. While we do get a look into Bowie’s mindset during the creation of his and Brian Eno’s Berlin trilogy (Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger), the film frustratingly skips over many other albums and eras, including the Thin White Duke’s fascination with blue-eyed soul. After his self-described “simple, positive music” of the 1980s, Bowie reinvented himself as a member of the band Tin Machine. This is also absent from the film, as is much of the music from the late-era albums Heathen, Reality, and The Next Day.
There is also a lot of Bowie’s life left unexplored. Do we learn a lot about his marriage to Angela? No. Do we learn a lot about his marriage to Iman? A bit. Do we learn anything about his kids? Not at all. Going by this film, you’d never know Bowie had kids (a son with Angela, Duncan, and a daughter with Iman, Alexandria). Does it cover his addictions? Sort of. There’s the ever-present cigarette in his mouth, and in his Berlin years a lot of sniffling in the backseat of limos, yet no explicit mention of cocaine. The film is more concerned with Bowie’s artistic impact. We see him painting, sculpting, working with music videos. Another documentarian may have focused on different eras, different albums, different interviews, different performances. It’s interesting to see what Morgen deems important.
Something that Morgen does that at first rubbed me the wrong way, but then I felt more comfortable with as the film went on, is using imagery from Bowie’s work with different audio clips to recontextualize the message. Specifically, he uses footage from Bowie’s later era videos like The Heart’s Filthy Lesson and Blackstar but with different music and/or Bowie speaking about his relationship with art. He also uses footage from Bowie’s acting work, without explicitly telling the audience that’s what he’s doing. We see clips from The Linguini Incident, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hunger, and even a quick shot of Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth. This affords Morgen the opportunity to use Bowie’s own acting work and own music video imagery mixed with unrelated interviews to convey new thoughts, emotions and feelings.
Like the filmmaker, who is a decade older than I am, I have had a lifelong connection and deeply personal relationship with the art and music of David Bowie. The day he died I was so devastated that I found it hard to be at work. There I was, at a radio station in front of a microphone, doing my best to explain to the audience how much this man and his art meant to me and everyone else who ever felt like an outsider. How Bowie’s makeup-wearing gender fluidity taught me at an early, impressionable age that it was preferable to be true to yourself rather than conform to society’s expectations.
The more you know about Bowie going in, the more rewarding the film will be for you. This is not a film for someone who is new to David Bowie. If you’re not already a super fan, I would not recommend this as the place for you to start. As introductions go, it’s almost impenetrable. But if Bowie has been part of the soundtrack to your life, you will undoubtedly find much to admire about what Brett Morgen has accomplished with Moonage Daydream. If you’ve spent time over the years reading interviews and books about Bowie, perhaps gone to see him in concert and listened to hours of his music, you may feel like you’ve learned all you can about him. But due to receiving the blessing and cooperation of Bowie’s estate, Morgen has extraordinary access to Bowie’s archives, and as a result the film features interviews, concert clips, and paintings that we have not seen outside of this documentary. Throughout the film Bowie discusses his creative process in detail and how he “hates a wasted day.”
I once read an interview during which Bowie was asked how he managed to come up with such original ideas for his music. Bowie’s reply was that he wasn’t original at all, he was just good at stealing. I love that (exaggerated) answer. Every creative person has influences. What’s interesting is how they filter those through their own creative lens. Brett Morgen has taken Bowie’s music, interviews, wardrobe, travels, and philosophy and weaved it all into something new: a thrilling, sometimes frustrating examination of a once-in-a-lifetime artist. While Moonage Daydream may be preaching to the Bowie choir, I’m pleased to be a member of that church.