Meet the director delving into the wonderfully chaotic world of David Bowie.
In David Bowie’s transcendent and final album Blackstar, the messianic artist’s final message to his adoring public contained a simple message: “I can’t give everything away”.
Despite being one of the most revered and beloved artists to ever exist, what do we really know about David Jones? His music, art, philosophy, and indeed every sinew of his being, is crafted around a prescient ambiguity: Bowie never gave everything away. That deliberate, unknown space between performer and artist had an enigmatising energy that made his career-defining mystique all the more intoxicating.
How do you attempt to define and explain the sprawling and complex creativity of a true genius? You don’t. At least, not if you are Brett Morgen. In fact, the beauty of Morgen’s ‘documentary’ Moonage Daydream is not in explaining the icon with talking heads and testimonials, but in embracing the abstruseness of everything Bowie via a cacophony of frenetic, non-linear montages. Why separate the personas from the real deal, the art from the artist, the fantasy from the reality, when you can combine it all at once in a visceral, chaotic, and – at the heart of it – loving piece of cinema?
“Moonage Daydream is not about David Jones,” director Brett Morgen states, “If you think you’re seeing a biographical documentary you’re going to hate it and have a miserable experience.” It’s evident from the offset that creating a run-of-the-mill documentary was never an option for Brett Morgen, whose style you won’t recognise from any of his previous features, including Cobain: Montage of Heck and The Rolling Stones tour doc Crossfire Hurricane. This is not to disparage the well-versed filmmaker, quite the opposite, Morgen’s malleability is an intrinsic part of his process: “I’m a method director by trade. I’m always appropriating the styles, the habits, and the rhythms of my subjects”. When asked if there was a decision to be made about whether to create a testimonial-led recounting of Bowie’s life, Brett wryly and quickly replied: “No, that decision was made 22 years ago!”
22 years harks back to the now 53-year-old Brett Morgen’s debut feature On the Ropes, but his relationship with Bowie, like many, began early in his childhood. The director, writer, editor and producer of Moonage Daydream reminisced: “Entering my teenage years, Bowie was the conduit and passport for all of the art and culture I would consume…He was the flag bearer for individuality and identification, he satisfied and fulfilled that role in my life.”
“Entering my teenage years, Bowie was the conduit and passport for all of the art and culture I would consume…He was the flag bearer for individuality and identification, he satisfied and fulfilled that role in my life.”
It’s one thing saying it, but a whole other Rubik’s Cube to adopt the idiosyncratic stylings of one of the most heralded creators of all time. However, as a testament to Morgen’s artistic vision, he’s “always had a particular fetish for montage”, he was aided by Bowie’s estate and given unprecedented access to footage spanning the frontman’s career. This resulted in a unique production process where Brett was confronted with over five million assets from the vault and was left to sift through the material himself.
Although this may sound harrowing to some, it was quite the opposite for Brett, he tells us that the “experience of observing the footage for two years was heaven on Earth…I would love to go back there and carry on and maybe even start again. I could go there for the rest of my life.”
Throughout the editing process is where Morgen really had to start thinking outside the box to capture the essence of Bowie: “I designed the film in a way to maintain as much of the mystery and enigma that David Bowie represented in his art. David invites us, because he’s so non-specific in a biographical songwriting perspective, to fill in the blanks and extract our own meanings and interpretations. I hoped that I could make a film that would encourage each member of the audience to find, discover, or rediscover their own Bowie.”
Brett also spoke of Bowie’s own vision, via an archival 1973 radio interview, “he talks in it about how he is trying to create art that feels like the moment just as you’re about to go to sleep, when you’re partially conscious and partially out of it.” Accessing this (typically Bowie) ethereal vibe led the method director to literally sleep with his editing equipment – often cutting the film in a subliminal haze. In fact, the scintillating crescendo of the movie was achieved in this very state.
This dreamlike effect induced by Bowie was more than corroborated from archival footage of many fans that made the final cut, with many in varying forms of euphoric enchantment. One gig-goer succinctly outlines that: “listening to Bowie is like entering a fantasy”. This sentiment potently lingers on the mind as one experiences the illusory realm of Moonage Daydream.
It’s an understatement to say that Brett merely fulfils this otherworldly atmosphere, as he realises it in a suitably feverish barrage of colour and sound. Capturing everything from the orange-hued Ziggy Stardust 70s to the aesthetically bleaker Berlin years, and eventually the digital apocalypse of the 90s. The accuracy with which the director captures Bowie’s eras, beyond just surface-level aesthetics, perhaps makes it no surprise that he felt a symbiosis develop with the artist as he delved deeper into the material.
"David invites us, because he’s so non-specific in a biographical songwriting perspective, to fill in the blanks and extract our own meanings and interpretations. I hoped that I could make a film that would encourage each member of the audience to find, discover, or rediscover their own Bowie.”
“My whole idea of art and creating art has been upended by Bowie… I’ve spent most of my life trying to refine and perfect my craft. During Moonage Daydream, Bowie introduced me to the idea that virtuosity is totally overrated.” Brett adapted his techniques in order to leave his comfort zone and embrace the unknown like The Thin White Duke before him. “I kept the oblique strategies 3 inches from my hands. I had to be an amateur and find an innocence in creation.”
The Bowie-esque authority over the art eventually led Morgen to the conclusion that he would edit the film himself, allowing himself to embrace mistakes (another Bowie-given skill he learnt) and experiment. It wasn’t always easy though, with Brett describing the experience as often traumatic, even suggesting: “I would’ve fired myself as an editor a dozen times if I could afford to.”
What eventually brought the director back round was the same throughline, as Bowie refers to in the documentary, that defined the singer’s career: chaos and fragmentation. “I’m a maximalist, which is a bit dangerous” Brett pondered, before elaborating on the Nouvelle Vague’s influence on Moonage Daydream. It makes a great deal of sense that the movement, spearheaded by the late master of cinema Jean-Luc Godard, that blurred the thin line between objectivity and subjectivity was essential in portraying the androgyny of Bowie’s art.
Brett wants to make films “that invite the audience to swim in the subject’s mind”. Moonage Daydream is less of a paddle and more of a complete submergence into the world of one of the greatest minds to grace Earth.
The director summarised the sometimes chaotic, sometimes overwhelming, but always compelling nature of the film by outlining: “it’s not that form is supporting the content, the form is the content. The form is designed to reflect and personify David Bowie”.
Brett Morgen’s ‘Moonage Daydream’ is out in cinemas now.