Known for his documentaries on noteworthy cultural figures from Kurt Cobain to Jane Goodall, filmmaker Brett Morgen has returned to the silver screen with Moonage Daydream, one of his intoxicating and most electric works to date. Clocking in at 140 minutes, the film is a psychedelic odyssey into the prolific, multifaceted career and fascinating, enigmatic mind of music legend David Bowie.
As the first film authorized by the Bowie estate, Moonage Daydream features gorgeously restored never-before-seen concert footage, illuminating interviews, and hypnotic visuals. Unlike a traditional music documentary, the film is more of an abstract and experimental cinematic experience, which presented a challenge for Morgen at first. In addition to Bowie's longtime producer Tony Visconti serving as a music producer for the film, the estate granted Morgen an unprecedented amount to access to Bowie's archive of personal artifacts.
"It felt like I was making a very complicated arts-and-crafts project," Morgen tells Metacritic. "I was by myself with this f---ing 11-inch laptop. There were no worlds. There was no direction."
Prior to creating Moonage Daydream, Morgen envisioned doing a series of IMAX experiences. But after parsing through Bowie's treasure trove of journals, paintings, and photographs, the writer-director-editor-producer decided Moonage Daydream would be a one-off, believing it would be impossible to reproduce something like this again.
Tracing his legacy from his Aladdin Sane era in the early '70s to his late-period work before his death in 2016, Moonage Daydream conveys Bowie beyond his valuable contributions to pop and rock 'n' roll. Throughout the film, the chameleonic British superstar shares his philosophies on life, love, death, and creativity via archival footage and audio clips. His insights speak to his intellectual brilliance, but his resistance to settling on being or doing just one thing truly informs how much he stood out among the crop of other popular artists at the time.
"I cannot imagine there would be a better subject than Bowie for me personally," Morgen says. "The lesson that I learned that I'm taking away from Bowie is to make every day an adventure."
Further elaborating on his years-in-the-making project, here, Morgen talks to Metacritic about never wanting to do another music doc after Moonage Daydream, the difference in approach from Cobain: Montage of Heck, and what surprised him most about Bowie during his research.
What drew you to do a documentary on Bowie?
He's the greatest artist of my lifetime. He is the holy grail of subjects. This man was on some other plane.
I didn't think this when I started the project. I thought he was a good musician. I liked his music. More than that, he had a huge role when I was going through puberty. In becoming conscious of the world, he woke me up. Then, I sort of moved away and I did my thing.
After spending two years looking at every single image in existence in the David Bowie archive and having access to everything outside the Bowie archive, I just went through a revival. It's all goodness in there. There's a perfect Bowie song for every mood at any moment. He is the most inspiring speaker that I've ever heard in my subjects and I've had some amazing subjects: Kurt Cobain and Jane Goodall and Bob Evans.
When I got to Toronto the other night to introduce the film [at the Toronto International Film Festival], I said, "I'm never doing another music doc and I'm never doing another archival doc." The idea of doing another music doc or another archival film at this point, after doing it for 20 years, it's redundant.
The only reason for me to continue to do it is to try to perfect my craft. And what I learned from David is virtuosity is overrated and I bought the Kool Aid. He is right. I don't know how much time I have left, but what time I have left, I want to approach life with a little more of that adventurous kind of spirit that Bowie infused in me.
In the pre-production process, did you consider taking a more concrete music doc route or had you always envisioned it to be this way?
Before I knew I was doing David Bowie, I said to myself, "I'm doing an IMAX music experience." The idea was, I wanted to take over the IMAX theaters to play my favorite music because their speakers are so good. It was really about sound. It was not about the oversized image. It was about the continuity and consistency that one receives in an IMAX theater through the audio play. That was where it started.
Then, I landed on Bowie and everything kind of changed. When I was pitching the IMAX music experience as a 40-minute endeavor, it was that each film would look different than the next because they would all be designed in the flavor of the subject, but Bowie became something much different.
You previously tackled another famous rock star, Kurt Cobain, in Cobain: Montage of Heck. Did working on that help inform how you approached Moonage Daydream?
Total polar opposites. Cobain: Montage of Heck is a completely linear narrative. In terms of if it was challenging as a filmmaker, there was never a point where I felt stifled or stuck. I started with a lot of collaborators. I was working with an editor. I was cutting it myself. We had a staff. I had producers. It was just very fluid.
[With Moonage Daydream], I didn't know how to write an experience. I didn't have anyone to get help from other than my wife. I didn't have a producer. I didn't have an editor. I didn't even have an intern. I didn't have a research assistant. I had nothing.
When you mix films, all orientation is from the front of the room. The screen's up there, the actors are up there, the dialogue comes from the center channels. I had a totally different idea, that sound will be played at equal volumes wherever you're sitting in the theater and that the music would be coming into the room. I wanted to offer you something you couldn't get at home.
In your research, what surprised you about Bowie that you hadn't really known before taking on this project?
Everything was a surprise. Everything was a revelation. Everything was illuminating. The subtle things that surprised me were his patience, his ability to be present in every moment, to view each moment as an opportunity for some sort of exchange, to accept that there is no perfection, that there are no mistakes, there's just happy accidents, that art is imperfect, that virtuosity is overrated, and that we need to make every day as adventurous as we can, not for any reward and not because it's gonna lead us to nirvana, but just to improve our day-to-day living.
David did arrive at a place — and this is why the movie ends where it does — where he was able to be creative without putting himself in the fire. For the first two decades of his career, he had to physically be in transit. It was much more physical. And then when he meets [his wife] Iman, it's like he's able to finally come home and still find a way to be creative.
There was so many life lessons that were applicable to both his art and how to live one's life. I found that truly inspiring. The philosophy of his life is the philosophy of his art. It's something that I think we can all benefit from, whether we're in film or we're writers or we're schoolteachers or day laborers.
Get to know Brett Morgen:
Before making Moonage Daydream, Morgen wrote, directed, produced, and edited other documentaries, including Jane(Metascore: 87), Cobain: Montage of Heck (83), On the Ropes (80), and The Kid Stays in the Picture (75).