Moonage Daydream


In early September, I saw Moonage Daydream at its premiere at the BFI Imax in Waterloo (followed by an amazing after-party at the Blavatnik Building, part of Tate Modern, where we danced to Bowie with Eddie Izzard: life level unlocked). Hearing too much about a film can be trouble. Trailers and reviews give you inklings while you try to avoid spoilers. But this film, which has been called an immersive (boy, is that an overused word) documentary, I’d already seen most of, so it felt organically like I had to prepare my thoughts and expectations in advance. I’d decided that the absence of much new footage, which friends rather than reviewers told me about, wasn’t going to bother me, but that turned out to be easier thought than done and not even the biggest problem with the film, ironically.

Its creator, Brett Morgen, had been courting hardcore fans for months. The early discussion last year about the film in the press continually said that it was based on ‘thousands of hours of unseen footage’. You might, then, expect quite a bit of it to be in there. Before
Moonage even had a release date, much of the narrative said stuff like: ‘While exact details about the new Bowie film are scarce, unseen concert footage is supposedly a central element to the documentary’.

Perhaps this mixes up the difference between ‘unseen’ and ‘rare’ (pretty basic for a director to know the difference you might think) because at no point was this big fat selling point disavowed by anyone to do with the film. Wait for it, surprise coming up, it turned out to be a complete lie and there is very little new stuff; I’d estimate about 5 per cent. The film’s major find is some footage from the Isolar II Tour, shot at Earl’s Court in 1978. We get all of
“Heroes” (though the first half is audio only, as we’re stuck with seeing fans coming in, for some reason) and a bit of Warszawa. There’s a little bit of Diamond Dogs Tour footage, too. But that is it. In a recent interview with the Guardian Morgen said ‘if you’re a hardcore aficionado, there’s enough new material to satiate you’. *turns to camera* *eye-roll*

He also said
Ricochet was his ‘holy grail’ when giving a story to Indiewire of finding it like he was Indiana Jones. It’s one of the extras on the Serious Moonlight DVD and is not hard to find. It’s not a big treasure. It’s some ‘stranger in a strange land’ footage of Bowie going around looking vaguely like a colonial ruler, bowing his head to foreigners. As always with him, it is well-meaning but it shouldn’t have been excavated here as the heart of the film. It’s nowhere near that interesting. But Morgen loves Ricochet so much he repeats the same footage of Bowie going up and down an escalator three times to hammer home his point (it’s not the only reused, repetitive footage). One assumes the point was Bowie at his best making music when he was searching for something. Then when he found it (the wife) he became so contented that his music went bad. Good grief.

Morgen had discovered all this material after spending five years sifting through the vast Bowie archive (made up of some
5 million ‘assets’). He was only the second party allowed in there, after the V&A curators. Francis Whately did the BBC’s great Five Years docs, but going by this interview I don’t think he had access officially, though the estate were helpful (and Bowie was alive when he started, so it was different). I don’t doubt Morgen’s love for the music and his intention – to show the world why we’re all so devoted to Bowie – is pure. He obviously loves David very much.

But despite what he says,
Moonage is not for fans; it’s for everyone else. It’s a Bowie gateway for people who are coming to him relatively fresh and, at a basic level, it does fulfil its aim. What is better than seeing a massive amount of Bowie footage on a gigantic screen? That’s always a good time. There were things I liked about it, such as the voiceover narration, which uses Bowie interviews spanning decades; that worked very well. Particularly insightful were clips from the superb Mavis Nicholson interview), recorded in 1979. It set the context well of where his life was at age 32. If he came off a bit cold or distant emotionally in those 70s interviews, that’s because he was. And therein lies the problem. So much of the film’s narration is based on early interviews, when he was just as stupid as any of us are at 26. Morgen tries to balance the interviews out by using more recent ones, when Bowie’s older, wiser, more aware of his place, and has a deepened understanding of his creativity and process. But it’s not enough. And worse, all the interviews were utterly humourless. What? David Bowie was a funny man, with a super-dry sense of humour. Using all these interviews to make him sound incredibly pretentious achieved what? Sometimes he was pretentious, nothing wrong with that. But you’re cutting off half a personality by making your film so po-faced, by believing the audience doesn’t deserve even one laugh as it’d break the mood?

Having said that, I am grateful that the film has a short section on his paintings, as it’s overdue for that aspect of his artistry to be taken seriously. Another part on Bowie’s half-brother and his illness, and his mum keeping her own emotional distance, was well-handled. The Russell Harty interview is a hoot, because he is just so incredibly weird compared to what English culture was serving people in 1973. The best-selling single of the year was the jaunty kitsch pop of Tony Orlando and Dawn’s
Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree. On TV it was the era of The Benny Hill Show. The most-watched TV broadcasts of the year were Princess Anne’s wedding, then Eurovision. It is impossible to overstate how the nation would have dropped its dinner when they saw this guy who looked like he’d just got off a spaceship from fucking Mars. Harty, who was deeply closeted, sneers and goads him over his bisexuality for the audience’s amusement yet Bowie’s relative innocence and charm survives the assault. Kids who loved him back then were beaten up at school and called homophobic slurs. Being a Bowie fan was dangerous and these clips are important to show you just why. The film doesn’t pretend any of this didn’t happen and handles his sexuality well, which I appreciated.

Moonage’s aim is to give a mainstream audience all the information so they can fall in love with him just like we did. That’s a highly valid idea for a film! But, how dull, nearly all of the material is derived from the 70s and early 80s. There is a bit of him looking hot and inspired while covered in paint on the 1995 set of Hearts Filthy Lesson (which we don’t hear), but it’s in the film three times. There’s some collaged, thunderously loud versions of Hallo Spaceboy live in 1996/7, which I enjoyed. There is a nice juxtaposed Space Oddity of old with the 1997 NYC birthday concert. There are also some great bits of the Louise Lecavalier dance footage shot for 1990’s Sound + Vision Tour (but without any context, because it doesn’t fit the narrative, more of which later). We get about a minute of the ritual footage from the video, without Bowie in it, which doesn’t make sense without context either, then we see about five seconds of him. There’s a little bit of soundless footage from a Reality promo to, I assume, compare young with old (if 56 is old). But that is it for anything after 1987. All this might take up perhaps ten or 15 minutes of the 2 hours and 15 minutes running time. Slim pickings.

It all means that we are subjected to the deeply boring reiteration of the late-work cliché. What I mean by that is the untrue and insulting idea that Bowie’s great music was over after 1983 (if not 1980). The other week in the Sunday Times, Morgen gave an interview in which he said that when Bowie met Iman in 1990 his work ‘plateaued’ [‘reached a state of little or no change after a period of activity or progress’]. How can he think that? The same paper printed a ‘ranked from worst to best album list’ that has , elevated because it’s ‘rich in symbolism’ (i.e. they consider it tragic), as the only album in the top ten made after 1980. 1. Outside is placed at 20 out of 26 (the Tin Machine albums are excised but the band is called ‘excruciating’). Look, I can understand why Morgen believes the general public wouldn’t want to watch a film that includes more than a small amount of the later work of the 1990s and the late work of Heathen onwards. The media has been ripping Bowie’s mid-career work (1984-99) to shreds for nearly four decades. Wasn’t this an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, the media has told you his 1990s output was shit, but it’s not!’? Morgen has repeatedly, openly disrespected that work in interviews. Then he backtracks on Twitter and says he loves ‘Heathens’ [sic] and Outside’? Not convincing. There is nothing in the film from Heathen by the way, a significant work that doesn’t fit his Bowie-got-boring-when-he-got-married narrative. And nothing of another important album, The Next Day, which is bonkers. Even back in his beloved 70s, there’s nothing from Young Americans and, from Station to Station, we get a minute of Word on a Wing accompanying a cringe photo gallery of Bowie and Iman, then ten seconds of the title’s track’s train sound! Very bizarre. Why not do a classic final ‘comeback’ section? Tell me a third act where he returns in his sixties and then dies a couple of days after his masterpiece comes out wouldn’t be a perfect ending to the film?

his was a chance to expose a wide audience to some of the music he made as an older person, when he deepened his thinking about life, creativity and existence. Instead, Morgen repeats the false narrative about Bowie’s later work by excising much of it, reinforcing the idea that nothing after Let’s Dance is worth anything. If you don’t want to rehab Bowie’s 1990s, okay, sure. It’s a big task, people won’t want to hear it. But the late work (2002-16) is not a hard sell. That period encompasses some of the most exciting, nuanced, intelligent and, yes, demanding and complex work of Bowie’s entire career. I don’t expect a five-hour film. And in a way it’s not even really about something being missing, it’s about a thought process that labels 1. Outside as ‘not on anyone’s bingo card’, as he did in the new issue of Sight and Sound. He sucks up to fans but fails to notice that album is one of our favourites? It’s a commercial decision to not challenge the audience by making most of the film out of footage he thinks they want. No company is going to give you millions of dollars to show a world audience the best bits from a period openly derided by so many (though the NYT recently said the production ran out of money). But if you think his work ‘plateaued’ when it got deeper and more challenging, do you understand your subject?

Thank god at least that the format isn’t one of those boring talking-heads documentaries. I don’t want to watch people who interviewed him a couple of times, or never met him at all, or ‘famous fans’ making their money out of speaking his name. I’m bored of that, aren’t you? In the last decade of his career he let others speak in his place and it worked, it was smart. But now he is gone. So those who chase that ambulance… I don’t want to see anyone churn out the same old anecdotes or stale cultural opinions for the hundredth time. I don’t dig it. I want
him. I want him to speak and sing and be heard and seen. I want more analysis of his music and fewer people talking about his ‘influence’.

Moonage is about getting a new audience to understand the essence of who he was. It’s about young people going to see it and being blown away because it’s all new to them. Bowie is the music not even of their parents, but their grandparents, now. The music of my grandparents was Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra. Falling generationally in between crooners and The Beatles was Elvis, a grand hero of Bowie’s. When I was young, in the early 1990s, Elvis was long gone, from 30 years before, full generations ago. Not even my parents were old enough to be his fans. Another 30 years has passed and now Bowie is to teenagers what Elvis was to me. I knew the real, beautiful, non-tragic Elvis because my mum and her best friend showed me all the 50s footage and some of the better movies. I didn’t know what happened to him when I was young. But most people did and made jokes about him. It was unfair, Elvis deserved better than to be remembered as a fat Vegas act who made dozens of bad movies. And so as Baz Lurhmann’s eccentric, flawed and brilliant Elvis biopic starts to leave cinemas, having completely captured how he filled the world with electricity, so arrives this film that should fill new people with the same wonder. It probably will, if you don’t know very much about Bowie. That Elvis film injects you with a thousand volts of power and energy and magic; it makes you see why, as Lennon said, before Elvis there was nothing. It manages to be kind of a bad film and a work of art at the same time. I craved for Moonage to do the same. But Morgen is not Luhrmann, he doesn’t have his talent.

A moment on the crime of using blurry footage. Morgen’s insistence on it being in Imax is a nice idea in its ambition. And some footage – D.A. Pennebaker’s
Ziggy; the 1978 clip of “Heroes”, the highlight of the film; a bit of the Jump They Say video (no audio, too 1990s), the b/w S+V footage, the 1. Outside painting – works blown up to that scale. But a lot of it doesn’t. There are significant sections that are impossible to see properly because it’s all so grainy and of poor quality. It is unforgivable to put newly discovered Diamond Dogs Tour footage on screen that is virtually unwatchable. There’s a bit from the Station to Station Tour that is significantly worse than the cheap bootleg I have of it – and worse than was seen in the end credits of the first part of the BBC’s Five Years documentary (which trumpeted its ‘wealth of previously unseen archive’ and delivered on it). I’m embarrassed for Morgen. Even Cracked Actor was a mediocre transfer, so was the Serious Moonight Tour footage, so was Glass Spider. Just put the film on Netflix, it’ll look better. This was discussed after my second viewing with an expert (hi Andrew!) and he told us it was because of the differences between what is shot on film (transfers perfectly) and what is shot on video (transfers terribly, cannot be improved). In that case, why use bad, grainy footage at all? It just makes your film look amateurish. Just be honest and say it’s not good enough to be blown up to cinema size.

The first half hour was quite dull, because Ziggy is not my favourite period, but it felt like simply sticking Pennebaker’s great movie on a big screen. That is okay I guess, I’m happy to see Bowie footage again, big and loud. But song after song? By the time we got to the video of
Ashes to Ashes looking worse than any bootleg I’ve seen, I had given up. Use my Best of Bowie DVD, mate, it’s better than whatever source you found. In the mid-80s, yes, I get it, he was unhappy. But to set up the high camp of the Glass Spider Tour as the lowest point? Playing only video from it, no audio, no context, was low. Play his entrance in Labyrinth to, what, sneer at a film that created a massive new generation of Bowie fans? Ignore Tin Machine like it never happened, despite its great importance to him as an artist, because it doesn’t fit your narrative? There can’t have been rights issues over all of it. And putting in the Pepsi ad proved what? It’s a bit of fun. This film is so painfully serious, it shouldn’t have been. It all continues to pour fuel on the idea that Bowie had ‘bad years’ without taking a second to look again and see if there is much of value. He just keeps refusing to expose the audience to anything from after 1983. We hear Spaceboy and a bit of . That is it. Not one more second from the last 33 years of his career.

I’m not a fool, I know this is a fan’s review. You can’t assess movies properly that way. It’s too personal. But when the director goes out of his way to appeal to fans, going so far as to make a trip to the Liverpool Bowie convention (I met him there, he was very nice), you’re saying that this is a movie as much for us as anyone else when it’s not. New people, and those who always liked him a bit and wanted to know more, should go on their Bowie journey and
Moonage Daydream will help them do it. It’s why the film reviewers, who might like him just fine but aren’t mad fans, all gave it five stars (the music reviewers like it less). It’s why the audiences I saw it with adored it. But setting out that being with Iman made him boring/out of ideas in his artistic life jarred (feels like the estate insisted on her being dropped in). Never mind that he put out his weirdest fucking work, 1. Outside, three years after they got married. The estate are going to manage his legacy however they want following the end of the first five years of what I can only assume were his wishes (when great stuff like Glasto and Visconti’s Lodger remix came out, which he consented to). We have walked through that looking glass now. They’ve sold the songs to Warners for £125 million and now you are going to be told what to think about him. One recent ad campaign was a remix by the DJ Honey Dijon for the home exercise bike company Peloton, about which she said: “I chose Let’s Dance because it’s a celebration of music and movement – just like Peloton!”

I don’t think one person is going to realise Bowie is amazing because they’ve heard a piano-led, slowed-down version of
Sound and Vision advertising the refurbishment of your spare room by B&Q (yes, this is a real example). I don’t think one person is going to buy some tat (socks, Barbies, cheap T-shirts, a Low tankard: another real example) and go, wow, I’ve just discovered Baal because of it! I want no part of this.

The film does have a purity of reach, because it takes his artistry and creativity seriously, rather than talking about his clothes or sex life, which is great. I just wish I could see the footage properly and there was some understanding of how he got better as he aged, rather than reinforcing a media-driven cliché of everything going downhill after the 1970s. Worse, setting up that the ‘peak’ we keep going back to is 1972. Are you kidding? His least musically adventurous stuff is the artistic pinnacle because of his impact? This legacy management is out of our hands, but we don’t need to buy into it. I’m disheartened that
Moonage is such a disappointment. Not even just that, it’s a fucking mess. Of course, many fans will adore it uncritically because they don’t want to find fault, as this might be seen as a ‘betrayal’ of David. This film will bring about revelations for many and that’s fantastic. But that was not my experience.

I was hoping it’d become one of those documents that we would end up watching, a bit drunkenly, in excitement at its treasures, for years. I couldn’t even say I was looking forward to seeing it a second time. But I did go, because it had to be done. The first 45 mins of Ziggy is still boring. The middle section when we get to Berlin is a little better on second viewing. The incidental music choices are, repeatedly,
Ian Fish U.K. Heir and The Mysteries (I guess he did get into my Best of Bowie DVD after all; that’s the menu music). And the last half hour is a dirty, offensive setup, lining up a bunch of great footage – Glass Spider, Labyrinth et al. – to tell the audience that he was shit in the 1980s. All set to a very on-the-nose Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. We get it, he was great in the 70s, then he committed artistic suicide, then he got married and then he died. What a waste.