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Moonage Daydream (oh, yeah)

Witnessing David Bowie, an artist who balanced control and discipline with restless curiosity, in the out-of-control documentary, Moonage Daydream, brings forth aesthetic and harmonic dissonance. Using the over-eager construction of an action-film trailer, saturated color explosions and constant cuts, director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Cobain: Mountain of Heck) keeps Bowie hidden from view while right in front of us. Bowie sings, while the film yells and waves hands in the air, obscuring the artist it purports to be about.

Morgen keeps changing channels on us, so eager to show everything he has. And he has some great stuff; excerpts of Bowie dancing with Louise Lecavalier, his Broadway performance in Elephant Man, and clips of him simply moving alone in a studio, his physical control and focus mesmerizing. It’s anarchic delight to see a very young Bowie impishly deflecting insinuating questions from the comically stuffy 1970’s talk shows (only Dick Cavett seemed to understand who he is talking to), with homophobia a constant undercurrent. And the many clips of songs familiar from albums, seen here performed live in front of an audience, let us hear how Bowie continued to shape those pieces. Yet director Morgen, blinded by his star’s radiance, refuses any chronological or thematic forward motion, projecting his subject’s shifting identities at us with little narrative guidance. Bowie constantly developed and changed through his work, while the film is a pastiche, the arrangement chaotic without effective accumulation or cohesion. The film’s “look, isn’t this cool?” eagerness, often more relentless than a typical voice-over narration would be, exhausts rather than inspires. There are some revealing recollections by DB, such as the influence of his half-brother, Terry, but there are also many philosophic musings that decay quickly. This is not a criticism of Bowie himself, one of the most complex of contemporary pop artists. What the director fails to recognize is that lyricist/singers transpose/translate philosophic language into lyric form. Their work sings instead of stating, driven by rhythm and melody. Morgen is trying to build a symphony, yet stalled in one movement.

Bowie himself apparently approved of Morgen, giving the film an imprimatur denied other efforts. But the film needs a producer, an editor, somebody a bit less soaked in the subject. OK, the kid stays in the picture (the kid is the picture) but could his growth be chronicled with more objectivity and a bit less gush? Unfortunately, the director was also the producer, writer, editor (with Morgen’s wife, Debra Eisenstadt, a producer as well). Too often, the film feels as enclosed as a cult home movie. Could the filmmaker have chosen to honor David Bowie through imitation, echoing Bowie’s stylistic/aesthetic changes through the construction of the documentary itself?

Sometimes, being obsessed and/or in love with your subject doesn’t leave any room for much else. In the stadium seating of the Union Square Regal cinema, with perhaps 20 other viewers in the theatre at a midday screening, I felt suffocated and assaulted rather than intrigued and inspired, as the film doubled-back on itself, appeared to be ending, then exploded into yet another restatement of flimsy psychoanalysis.

There’s a lovely shot in the film of a young man in a concert audience, staring at Bowie with an adoration that goes beyond fandom into reverie, as if witnessing a god. Perhaps Morgen, born in 1968, was also just coming of age during the Ziggy period, an imprinting reflected in the film. The film locks the always evolving David Bowie into a late 60’s/early 70’s psychodelia inadequately leavened by his later work; though Morgen tries to capture Bowie’s breadth, he is so breathlessly besotted with the early work that he can’t effectively move beyond it. David Bowie remains in constant motion, as the film struggles to keep up, perhaps an impossible task.

Jeff McMahon 2022

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