IN A GLUT of music documentaries where overlong counts as serious and talking heads sling clichés, we should be glad about Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream. It lets David Bowie do all the narrating, delivers riveting concert footage, and boasts a detailed audio design by Bowie’s longtime collaborator Tony Visconti. Like I Walk the Line, or Almost Famous, you hate to complain about movie sprawl when they nail the music, but at 2hrs 15mins this film will lose viewers simply because of its length. I looked at my watch after two hours, and I liked it.
Is it too much to expect music documentaries to adopt a structural narrative? Even casual observers can suss how much Morgen glosses over, including defining collaborations with Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, John Lennon, a messy divorce, a rabid cocaine habit, and a dumbfounding rock star death on the day of Black Star's 2016 release. (Morgen's Montage of Heck also pretended Kurt Cobain's addiction didn't figure.) At this moment in film history, our consensus around who controls the story requires fixed points. You don't need to create a comprehensive or even finely detailed timeline, but stick in a few dates, and trace a few threads, otherwise you open yourself to reactionaries who want to seize the narrative towards their own ends. "Everything is rubbish, and all rubbish is wonderful..." makes a nice tagline, but it's not an organizing principle. Going strictly didactic or complete freakout calls your credibility into question, and even when the freakout feels like the right move. You shouldn’t wear out your viewers with a musician they adore.
Moonage Daydream, Brett Morgen. Universal, 2022.
In "All the Young Dudes," Bowie defined himself by clinically detaching from the 1960s while borrowing key stylistic ingredients: psychedelia, misdirection, and all that Jimi Hendrix sci-fi twaddle. Here, Bowie seems like a pure product of his predecessors instead of a sleek attack on rock orthodoxy. Mostly, he seems giddy trying to explain his own half-baked notions. Bowie’s blather charms pretension itself, and now rhymes with that old Firesign Theater bit, Teslacle’s Deviant to Fudd’s Law: “If you push something hard enough, it will fall over…” Like Marx, or Freud, Nietzche gets name-dropped in inverse proportion to those who read or understand his quotations.
Bowie's lightning-bolt trademark lit up his cheeky grin; his bemused contempt enthralled TV interviewers. All this layered glamour freed up pop stories, but it took years to decode. Rock critic Chuck Eddy pointed out how his sci-fi characters meant more to a 1970s audience cracking old binaries. All of Bowie’s moves felt more unhinged without a containing frame of reference—so how best to describe to people born after 1990 or 2000 that his mission forged a clean break from the 1960s? Some dreams you don’t want to end, others turn into reruns before you awake.
—more about Bowie's Sound + Vision box when Tim's next book arrives, see timrileyauthor.com