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"Moonage Daydream" film review by Nathan Weinbender

One of the reasons David Bowie’s death hit so hard was because he seemed to exist on a plane beyond the experiences of mere mortals. He transcended genre, sexuality, gender, possibly even species, and so maybe we subconsciously assumed he’d never die.

At this point, it’s a cliché to describe Bowie as a rock ‘n’ roll shapeshifter, as the chameleon who slipped into one distinct persona after another, each of them an extraterrestrial interpretation of what was happening in the culture around him — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke.

The new rock doc Moonage Daydream deconstructs the traditional form of the rock doc in the same way Bowie deconstructed the very concept of the pop idol. It is ostensibly about Bowie’s life and art, but it is far more interested in essence than information. It’s a kaleidoscopic rush through Bowie’s career, a barrage of imagery and sound that only occasionally stops to explain what we’re looking at.

There aren’t any contemporary interviews with those who knew Bowie, no on-screen captions giving us a sense of time and place. If you walk into the film knowing nothing about Bowie, you won’t walk out feeling any more illuminated. It’s more of an experience than a history lesson. Watching it, I felt like Bowie’s alien character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, who absorbs human customs from multiple TVs at once. But dwarfed by an IMAX screen and enveloped in a booming sound system, I got caught up in it.

The film’s narration comes from Bowie himself, taken from decades of interviews where he grapples with his spirituality, his philosophy, his sexuality and his approach to art. The footage is a mixed-media collage of remarkable concert footage, scenes from films in which Bowie appeared as an actor, films that inspired his aesthetic, and his own experimental video art.

This is an approach typical of director Brett Morgen, who has previously stitched together existing material into challenging biographical portraits of the likes of Robert Evans, Kurt Cobain and Jane Goodall. As a biography of an important cultural figure, Moonage Daydream is hardly definitive, and every Bowie fan is going to be annoyed by at least one major omission. The movie skips over most of Bowie’s pre-Ziggy Stardust work and barely mentions his post-Ziggy “plastic soul” era. His most famous collaborators go mostly unmentioned. As far as I can recall, the movie never brings up Bowie’s first marriage or his two children.

These oversights might rankle, and sometimes work to reinforce an impression of Bowie that simply isn’t true: that, for most of his life, he was some kind of emotionally aloof spaceman who isolated himself from everyone and everything. But what Morgen doesn’t capture in clarity and completeness, he makes up for in (appropriately) sheer sound and vision.

The most powerful moments in Moonage Daydream involve Bowie on stage, and when Morgen visually juxtaposes the various stages of Bowie’s career. We see 1970s Bowie performing his first hit, “Space Oddity,” merging with Bowie in the 2000s performing the same song; he’s a few decades older, his voice is a little deeper and more lived-in, and it illustrates the enduring power of his work better than a hundred talking heads.

I’m sure there’s still a comprehensive, more conventional documentary to be made about David Bowie, his life, his career and his influence. But as evocation, as tribute, as audio-visual memorial, Moonage Daydream captures the transformative spirit of a man so out of time that he’s still ahead of it.