On 10 January 2016, everything went wrong. It was reminiscent of the poem The Day Lady Died by Frank O’Hara: “everyone and I stopped breathing”. In the years following the death of David Bowie we’ve had Brexit, Donald Trump as President, a global pandemic killed millions of people and we are now on the brink of a third world war.
This reviewer can’t be the only person to think this is all connected with Bowie’s departure. Watching Brett Morgen’s new documentary celebrating the singer, Moonage Daydream, the sense of loss becomes even more palpable. With access to Bowie’s own archives and featuring previously unseen live and interview footage, the documentary is true to the eclectic genius of the young lad from Brixton who dominated the music scene for decades. The music is front and centre and tracks are played in full and loud, frequently in live versions.
Animation and collages, as well as snippets and clips from Buster Keaton films to Blade Runner, illustrate Bowie’s influences and the tradition and context he was working from. In early sections we see just how grisly the early 70s could look: the weather reports, the food, the workday clothes and bad hair. But then came Bowie and glam rock, which generally sought to “get the 20th century started” (as Bowie grandiloquently puts it). Gender fluidity, bisexuality and theatricality all played into a playful androgynous identity which went for the fully outrageous, while having to bat away the most banal questions. There are many interviewers, some taking him seriously and others less so. Russell Harty asks if Bowie’s shoes are girl’s or boy’s shoes. With grace and wit, Bowie tells him: “They’re shoe shoes silly!”
Bowie wasn’t just a singer and musician. He was an artist, an actor – both on Broadway and in a number of iconic films. His interest in theatre and dance informed his stage shows as he evolved a number of personas from Ziggy to Aladdin Sane. Morgen presents a sense of Bowie as a man who is in search of himself and who, through philosophy and a bold commitment to art, finds his wisdom. He goes through many ch-ch-changes, ironically going into a period of huge commercial success of stadium rock and Pepsi endorsement just as he loses his mojo. Fortunately, Morgen skips over the Tin Machine years and storms into the 90s third act to the pounding, exhilarating noise of Hello Spaceboy.
Biography is glimpsed rather than gone into. This is a celebration of a Starman. His family life is marked by alienation and the tragic hospitalisation of his brother with schizophrenia, but we get the barest details. His marriages and sexcapades are largely ignored, except for the love of his life: Iman. His drugs are taken as a given, but of all those seventies superstars, Bowie seemed like the only one not to have a drug problem. He took all the drugs and it wasn’t a problem. Likewise, his dabbling with the far right and Nazi iconography isn’t explored. Thin White Duke indeed.
In the end, we’re left with the music, the videos: the evidence that remains like Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the lunar surface. If you’re not a Bowie fan, there’s a strong chance Moonage Daydream will convert you. If you already are then buckle up – for the countdown has begun.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty