The unforgettable musician is the centerpiece of an appropriately maximalist documentary.
In the unforgettable Looney Tunes cartoon Duck Amuck, director Chuck Jones posits a question to the viewer. What is Daffy Duck? Are his qualities recognizable even if he was in a different body? Entirely invisible? The various visual manifestations of this fowl, complete with a consistent personality emanating from the character’s voicework and body language, make it clear that Daffy Duck is more than just one physical vessel. He transcends form.
Duck Amuck is a precursor of sorts for Moonage Daydream, the new David Bowie documentary from director Brett Morgen. In examining Bowie’s life from the days of Ziggy Stardust to his final years, Morgan takes the viewer through the musical legend’s vastly different incarnations. The man’s wardrobe, music, and outlook on existence may change considerably. Still, through it all, there’s something constant in the chaos. Something unmistakably Bowie. Much like Daffy Duck, this musician is enduringly recognizable no matter what form he takes.
Morgen, who previously explored a music icon in Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, eschews the traditional talking head retrospective approach. Morgen instead smashes together personal footage shot by Bowie with a barrage of public interviews with this singer, quick clips from a slew of classic movies, abstract splashes of color, and more.
For the entire runtime of Moonage Daydream, Bowie, through audio culled mainly from interviews, provides the narration that takes viewers through the singer’s life. It’s a lovely touch in many ways, allowing Bowie to serve as a tour guide into his psyche despite his 2016 death. Even more insightful is how often contradictory this man’s observations on the world are from one year to the next. For example, Bowie labels love a curse in a clip from the 70s. Minutes later, viewers can hear him enthuse endlessly about his passionate romance with Iman in an interview from decades later.
Morgen doesn’t try to tidy Bowie’s contradictory statements. On the contrary, the evolving and paradoxical views this musician espouses throughout his life are part of the point of the whole feature. Moonage Daydream is a love letter to David Bowie through and through. However, it’s also thoroughly conscious of the subject’s humanity. He was a talented artist, but like anyone on this planet, he never had all the answers.
Moonage Daydream is structured to reflect the musician’s love for chaos with an appropriately frantic and wildly unpredictable presentation. The audience listens to him discuss how society’s obsessive avoidance of disarray leaves humanity worse for wear. The best of these chaotic visual accompaniments is recurring bursts of what look like droplets of watercolor paints splashed against a black backdrop. These often appear on-screen in time with music cues from Bowie’s songs, which can make them feel like pieces from a segment in an unrealized Fantasia sequel. Juxtaposing such vivid colors against a darkened landscape makes for a striking visual, functioning as a perfect extension of how often Bowie’s tunes combined dissonant elements.
Moonage Daydream is structured to reflect the musician’s love for chaos with an appropriately frantic and wildly unpredictable presentation.
The layered quality of those watercolor droplets speaks to the thoughtfulness that’s gone into the seemingly random bursts of imagery scattered throughout Moonage Daydream. While some of these touches, like recurring glimpses of a cosmic catgirl stumbling onto a skeleton, inspire befuddlement, others can’t help but stir up a sense of melancholy. Morgen’s editing cues that rapidly cut between Bowie at various points in his life are especially moving. Watching the various hairstyles, wardrobe choices, and facial expressions flicker by makes it apparent that his wild period has been condensed down to a few seconds. It’s an apt, if bittersweet, reflection of how quickly one’s existence can pass by.
But perhaps nothing is more melancholy-inducing than the parts of Moonage Daydream brought to life through ramshackle footage. Sometimes this consists of stuff Bowie captured on a camera for his own use; other times, it’s obscure, improperly preserved projects. These lesser-known pieces of footage may not be in crisp 4K, but that adds to their charm.
There’s an intimacy to the lo-fi nature of these segments. Even in a crowded screening, it feels like seeing something nobody else has. Here, we get a glimpse into less popular aspects of Bowie’s life not yet plastered everywhere on YouTube. Much like the emphasis on his contradictory views on the universe throughout his life, watching him work on paintings or just walk down a crowded hallway reaffirms the human being behind the chart-topping tunes.
The early segments of Bowie in a dimly lit club performing as Ziggy Stardust capture this palpable sense of closeness. A black cloud seems to surround Bowie and any of the passionate concertgoers framed by the camera. While likely a filming artifact, it creates an interesting parallel between the singer on-stage and the listener enthralled by his power. It’s another instance of Moonage Daydream quietly emphasizing the humanity in its main star while creating thoroughly unforgettable imagery.
The Bowie here is drastically different from the older and wiser Bowie at Moonage Daydream‘s end. They may as well be from different planets. Emphasizing that gulf between Bowie’s various personas while finding overlap is one of this documentary’s most impressive achievements. Well that, and the excuse to hear “Rock n’ Roll Suicide” through IMAX speakers. Much like Duck Amuck, Moonage Daydream makes you appreciate the enduring idiosyncrasies in a pop culture icon.
Moonage Daydream is embracing the chaos in theatres now.
Totally agree with you about the ‘droplets of watercolor paints splashed against a black backdrop’.
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