Monday, 26 September 2022

Moonage Daydream (2022) - Movie Review

Like with any other genre, documentaries tend to stick to a formula, especially biographical ones: Go through the subject’s life in chronological order, from childhood to the early days to their initial brush with fame to their eventual solidification as someone worth making a documentary about. Include interviews with people revolving around that person, whether they knew them personally or looked up to them as a fan, show some behind-the-scenes footage of the person hard at work in their field of choice, maybe throw in some historical context to bring out the real worth of their efforts in the larger scheme of things; chances are you’ve seen something just like that at least once before.

Moonage Daydream isn’t a typical documentary. Coming from Brett Morgen, the mastermind behind Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck, it’d be a shock if it were. In fact, when Morgen offers up is so atypical, I’d almost question if this really qualifies as a ‘documentary’ in the strictest definition. While it most certainly offers a look into the life and works of David Bowie, this is more focused on aesthetics than historical documents. Mood rather than facts. It bends the conventions of film around its subject, rather than cutting the latter up to conform to the former. And in the result of this Technicolor smog cloud, Morgen offers up something that offers a far better understanding of Bowie than a simpler documentary would ever be able to grasp at.

The footage brought together to make this consists of some familiar elements, like concert footage from across Bowie’s career, music videos interview footage taken from pre-existing talk show appearances, and numerous other snippets from his theatre performances, starring roles in films, and exhibits of his paintings. The rest of it, though, is what I can only describe as utter chaos. All of the Bowie footage, along with his narration that guides the film, is intercut with all manner of other media, from news reels to other films to sudden bursts of original animation. It’s montage work that goes beyond the extents I’ve seen it used in just about any other film, serving as a combination of cultural singularity and psychedelic acid trip. This is what it must have been like for Thomas Jerome Newton to watch Earth television.

It's remarkably eclectic, even within its many separate categories for utilised footage. The films that get sampled here show a lot of variety, from A Trip To The Moon to Plan 9 From Outer Space to Johnny Mnemonic, and as shown early on, it makes for a nice quick download of the kind of pulpy sci-fi and Japanese theatricality that helped inspire the image of Ziggy Stardust. The animation on offer is another thing again, as it might revisit a certain style once after its initial showing, but otherwise tries something different each time it shows up. One scene looks like it was made out of cardboard cutouts, another looks like a cross between 2001: A Space Odyssey and an ‘80s Doctor Who intro, while yet another looks like the projector started defragging midway through the film.

As it all continues to blast its way into the audience’s collective eyes and ears, what it ends up saying about David Bowie in the process not only gives some cerebral insight into his artistic legacy, but almost feels like he dictated the film’s production from beyond the grave. Every so often, a moment of narration will pop up that, in an instant, explains something about the film around it. He’ll describe life as being made out of chaos and how people need to embrace that fact… which would explain how cacophonous the visuals consistently get over these two hours and change. He questions the importance of time, and the film around those words treats his history in such a mash-up that it could be happening all at once. And when he discusses his numerous artistic pursuits, from music to theatre to film to painting, he treats them all with a certain pick-up-and-drop fashion; once he’s made his point with, he moves on. In response, this film keeps finding new ways to express its own visuals, rarely if ever lingering on a single approach for more than a few moments.

But the most telling quote is also one of Bowie’s more humourous additions. He talks about listening to American rock music and how he… didn’t really understand what the vocalists were saying at times. While I could make a joke here about post-grunge Eddie Vedder imitators, or screamo scene bands, or even just the Auto-Tune-reliant state of rap music nowadays, trust Bowie to pull poignancy out of even that setup. He goes on to explain that that lacking of comprehension added mystique to the music for him, which ended up making it more interesting to him. And how Morgen infuses that into the production is by depicting Bowie’s artistic qualities in abstract terms. It shows his influences, but divorced from context. It shows his methodology, but only in one specific era (his Berlin years working with Brian Eno) and still in vague terms. It shows the breadth of his interests, but overlayed until it all becomes this singular mass. It shows the creation… but not how it was created.

It's a risky approach to take, but for a documentary trying to align with the subject’s own artistic sensibilities, it ends up doing this production a world of good. It gives a sizeable depiction of David Bowie as an artist, diving into the myriad of disciplines and influences that pooled together to create the legend, while letting him retain the mysterious and alien personality that makes him so captivating as an artist. Beyond just the effect this has, as it is easily the single biggest sensory overload I’ve ever had watching a film in the cinema, it being able to depict so much while not even directly saying all that much is actually rather inspiring. Beneath all the mind-searing colours and delirious editing, it approaches its subject matter in a similar fashion to how I try and approach the films I review, particularly when I’m doing work for FilmInk and have to juggle being spoiler-free with a much tighter word limit. I can’t guarantee I’ll ever be this effective in my own writing, but at least I now know what to aim for.

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