I bow to nobody in my devotion to David Bowie. Closer to 50 years ago than I’d happily admit, my mother brought me to a long-defunct record shop on the Lisburn Road in Belfast to buy a copy of Ziggy Stardust. I have stuck with him ever since. There were long slumps. There were late revivals. But, heeding Captain Willard’s advice from Apocalypse Now, I never got out of the boat.
Yet even I approached Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream with scant enthusiasm. Since his death in early 2016, Bowie has been the subject of more than a few documentaries. BBC Four still periodically transforms into the Bowie Channel for an evening. Did we really need another Bowie flick? Won’t the film be a saddening bore? After all, we’ve lived it 10 times or more (sorry).
Brett Morgen achieved unprecedented access to Bowie’s records. This would trigger a daunting task with any artist, but it seems that the late singer documented his life with particular zeal. There were some five million items – audio recordings, videos, drawings, journals
On its premiere at the Cannes film festival last May, Moonage Daydream blasted aside all reservations with a huge stream of footage – some familiar, much previously unseen – that played out as an apparently inevitable, seamless whole. The walls of the Agnes Varda Theatre were clattering in support.
Morgen, best known for the excellent Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, achieved unprecedented access to Bowie’s records. This would trigger a daunting task with any artist, but it seems that the late singer documented his life with particular zeal. There were some five million items – audio recordings, videos, drawings, journals. It is remarkable that he managed to keep the finished film to 140 minutes.
“Most people don’t know this, but David saved everything,” Morgen tells me. “And for 20 or 25 years he’d been working with an archivist at the office and purchasing things in auctions anonymously. But there wasn’t really a point to it. They didn’t really have a plan.”
He goes on to explain that Bowie had no interest in a “trad” documentary. Moonage Daydream isn’t that. There is no voiceover. Those unfamiliar with the Bowie trajectory – from beginnings as David Jones in postwar Brixton to unsuccessful folkie to glam star to Euro-experimentalist to British national treasure – may find themselves occasionally lost in time. Though the drift is inexorably forward, the story is not told in strictly chronological fashion. For all that, the film has the momentum of a great song.
‘I acknowledged that I’m the first person to have complete and total access to the Bowie archives. We complemented that with a search for all known material’
“I would never put something in just because it had never been seen and not avoid something because it had been seen. Right?” Morgen says. “So that was the criteria. I could have very easily constructed an entire film of unseen material. And I could have gone the other way. Both versions would have suffered. I acknowledged that I’m the first person to have complete and total access to the Bowie archives. We complemented that with a search for all known material.”
Do not fret. Many of the greatest hits from previous documentaries are here. You can’t have a Bowie film without the strung-out mid-1970s version studying a fly in his milk while driving about the American desert. Of course there is footage of the Spiders at Hammersmith Odeon. But there are also odd little experimental films, unexpected live footage and some revealing interviews. It is interesting to note how incisive Russell Harty, an underrated TV personality, was in his conversations with the star. There are few dissenting voices. Fans will not be flinging any rotten fruit at the screen. But this is certainly not a conventional piece of work.
I wonder how Morgen won the Bowie estate round. He certainly has charm. Angular, with a rock star’s undisciplined hair, he bellows a greeting to me and, when I note that years ago I talked to Bob Evans for his doc The Kid Stays in the Picture, he launches into a delightful, unpublishable anecdote about that late producer. Yeah, I can see Morgen winning Team Bowie over.
“I first met David in 2007,” he says. “We had a meeting with his now executor Bill Zysblat to discuss collaborating on a hybrid nonfiction film – not Moonage Daydream, something totally different. I don’t want to speak for Bill – I definitely am not speaking for David – but, whatever was the effect of that meeting, David clearly didn’t say: ‘Jesus Christ, never work with that guy!’ Ha, ha!”
The danger of receiving a nod from the estate is that you end up with a drab authorised version. As already noted, Morgen doesn’t take any serious digs at his subject, but it certainly doesn’t have the bland look of an official record. The film buzzes with an energy that Bowie would surely have appreciated.
“I worked out a situation with the estate where they were going to transfer everything over to my office,” he says. “They had agreed to give me final cut. In fact, they wanted me to have final cut. Bill said to me, when we were embarking on the film: ‘David’s not here to authorise a film. So, it’s never going to be Bowie on Bowie. It needs to be Morgen on Bowie.’ The few times I went back to him as David’s confidant and asked, ‘Would David want to do that?’ he would say, ‘That’s your problem.’”
Morgen surely had to face up to one common problem with artists’ careers, particularly musicians. No star manages to maintain optimum quality throughout anything like an average lifespan. Bob Dylan was at his very best from the early 1960s to the mid 1970s. Van Morrison did better than most by remaining close to the top of his game for 25 years or so. Though not everyone realised it at the time, Bowie was the defining artist of the 1970s. Let’s Dance scored him big hits in the early 1980s. But it was not until the end of his life, with The Next Day and Blackstar, that he regained the prime form of those early years. That offers a challenge to a documentarist. Right?
“You just bypassed my favourite period – 1995 to 2004,” Morgen snaps with a true fan’s zeal. He enthuses, in particular, about Bowie’s largely avant-garde album Outside from 1995.
‘This is not a biographical documentary. It is not fact-filled. It is not a place to go and learn who David’s collaborators were’
“I didn’t think we’d see that again from him. It was so adventurous, so audacious, so dangerous,” he says. “Those were the benchmarks of the great 1970s albums. I went into the film thinking it’s going to be my task to level the playing field. I want to make sure people have an equal assessment of Seventies Bowie with the later period. I was excited by the task because most people will be hearing some of this for the first time. From the day we announced this film until the end of time, I will be saying this is not a biographical documentary. It is not fact-filled. It is not a place to go and learn who David’s collaborators were.”
Moonage Daydream nonetheless forms part of a complex postmortem Bowie mythos. He is surely significantly more revered now than at the height of his popularity when alive. Bowie was barely any sort of star in the US during the 1970s. Even in the UK, where he was a Top of the Pops regular, he was not a hitmaker to compare with, say, Elton John. When Space Oddity was re-released in 1975, it became his first number one hit. He did not have another chart-topper until Ashes to Ashes in 1980. Let’s Dance did extremely well, but his lifetime sales remain far below those of compatriots such as Cliff Richard, Queen, Led Zeppelin and Phil Collins. Yet, when he died, the media immediately recognised that an era-defining force had left the planet. One can’t imagine a film on the Dave Clark Five, who sold a similar number of records, rocking the Cannes film festival.
“In 2015, when we were planning on making 10 IMAX films, Bowie was not going to be one of them,” Morgen says slightly guiltily. “In 2015 Bowie was not a global superstar in the sense that Coldplay was. Spotify put out a list last year of the most-listened deceased recording artists on earth. Bowie was number one. And in 2017 He was not in the top 10.”
That was not entirely down to sentimental, slow-burn affection following his death.
‘I do consider David to be one of the great historians of his lifetime,’ Morgen says. ‘I think of him as a cultural anthropologist’
“You’re absolutely right to suggest that, in death, his legacy has just continued to grow,” Morgen says. “But there is one thing that’s I think we have to take into consideration. There was David Jones and there was David Bowie. None of us knew David Jones. His family and his friends knew David Jones. We all knew David Bowie. David Bowie didn’t die. David Jones died.”
That fits with the notion that Bowie (or, rather, Jones) was forever creating public personae. This was not a new concept. “Elvis Presley” was a construct. Brian Epstein cut the Beatles’ hair and put them in neat suits. But Bowie’s image-making was more self-conscious. Not quite 50 years ago I was bought a record by David Bowie that concerned a pop star called Ziggy Stardust. Different classes of concealment continued throughout his life.
“I do consider David to be one of the great historians of his lifetime,” Morgen says. “I think of him as a cultural anthropologist. He was going through life, trying to create a timestamp of each moment.”
That allows some good news.
“David Bowie is still very much with us. Or rather ‘David Bowie’ in quotations is still here.”
Moonage Daydream opens on Friday, September 16th