Review: ‘Moonage Daydream,’ starring David Bowie

September 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

David Bowie in “Moonage Daydream” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Moonage Daydream”

Directed by Brett Morgen

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the world (but particularly in London, New York City, Los Angeles and Berlin), the documentary film “Moonage Daydream” features a compilation of archival footage of entertainment superstar David Bowie (who died of cancer in 2016) and his various admirers and colleagues, who are mostly white, but include some black people, Latino and Asians.

Culture Clash: Bowie’s life as an artist is chronicled in this montage-styled film, including his unconventional stage personas and lifestyle; his insecurities about his work; and his personal struggles with finding true love. 

Culture Audience: “Moonage Daydream” will appeal primarily to Bowie fans and people interested in seeing a visually immersive documentary about an entertainment icon.

David Bowie in “Moonage Daydream” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Die-hard fans of David Bowie will not learn anything new from the all-archival documentary “Moonage Daydream.” The movie skips over some big parts of his life, but it’s a visually immersive experience that shows Bowie’s music and talent in an artsy way. “Moonage Daydream” is the first feature-length documentary authorized by the Bowie estate since he died of cancer in 2016. Bowie was 69 when he passed away.

Directed by Brett Morgen, “Moonage Daydream” includes voiceovers from some of Bowie’s media interviews that serve as intermittent narration. The documentary is a mix of media footage, live concert footage and music videos. Much of this footage is presented in Andy Warhol-influenced montages. “Moonage Daydream” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France.

The “Moonage Daydream” documentary gets its title from the Bowie song of the same name that’s on Bowie’s 1972 album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Bowie (who was born David Robert Jones in London, on January 8, 1947) was famous for frequently changing his image and musical styles over the years. During his “Ziggy Stardust” period, he performed as an outer-space alien rock star named Ziggy Stardust, whose backup band was named the Spiders from Mars.

Becoming the Ziggy Stardust persona was a pivotal period of time in Bowie’s career. He went from merely being a hit artist to a superstar know for celebrating acceptance of all sexualities, at a time when it was still very taboo for entertainers to openly embrace or be any sexuality that wasn’t heterosexual. To legions of fans and other admirers, Bowie represented people who wanted to express themselves and their genders in whatever ways they wanted.

Bowie was a recording artist from the 1960s until his death in 2016, but what he created in the 1970s was considered his most influential and therefore gets the most screen time in the “Moonage Daydream” documentary. Out of all all the 1970s footage in “Moonage Daydream,” the documentary features the “Ziggy Stardust” area the most. The “Moonage Daydream” documentary has several clips from director D. A. Pennebaker’s 1979 documentary film “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” which chronicled a 1973 concert that Bowie and his band did in London.

Unfortunately, for people who are unfamiliar with Bowie, “Moonage Daydream” does not tell Bowie’s story in chronological order, nor does the movie identify years in which any of the footage was taken. For example, one section of the documentary goes into Bowie’s work in the early-to-mid-1980s, but then jumps back to talking about his work in the late 1970s when Bowie collaborated with Brian Eno in Berlin. This jumping around in the timeline is one of the documentary’s flaws. The only people who can truly appreciate the historical context of the footage shown in the documentary are people who know what years Bowie’s songs and albums were released, or people can discern what year the footage was taken, based on what Bowie is wearing and his hairstyle in the footage.

However, the documentary greatly benefits from having several Bowie songs, as any credible film about Bowie should. “Moonage Daydream” has many of Bowie’s biggest hits, including “Space Oddity,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Diamond Dogs,” “Changes,” “Starman,” “The Jean Genie” “Life on Mars?,” “All the Young Dudes” (a Bowie-written song made famous by Mott the Hoople), “Heroes,” “Let’s Dance,” “China Girl” and “Modern Love.” Also included are some of Bowie’s lesser-known songs, such as “Moonage Daydream,” “Cracked Actor,” “Serious Moonlight,” “Outside” and “Earthling.” There’s also a brief snippet of Bowie performing the Beatles’ “Love Me Do” on stage in 1973 before launching into “The Jean Genie.”

“Moonage Daydream” dutifully includes mentions of Bowie’s acting career, including showing movie clips from 1976’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” 1983’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and 1986’s “Labryinth.” There’s also some quick footage of Bowie’s Broadway acting debut, in his starring role as the title character in “The Elephant Man,” which he played from September 1980 to January 1981. David Bowie’s 1980s musical duets with Queen and Tina Turner fly by in quick snippets that don’t do these collaborations justice. Bowie’s work as the lead singer of experimental rock band Tin Machine (from 1988 to 1992) is not in the documentary at all, but the documentary includes some footage of Bowie as an illustrator artist.

What you won’t see in “Moonage Daydream” are any mentions of his first wife Angie Bowie (they were married from 1970 to 1980); his son Duncan Jones (formerly known as Zowie Bowie) from that marriage; and his daughter Alexandria “Lexi” Jones, from his marriage to second wife Iman. In fact, Iman (a supermodel/beauty entrepreneur who’s originally from Somalia) is the only woman mentioned in the documentary as someone Bowie fell in love with in his life. It’s obviously very selective information. Iman and Bowie were married from 1992 until his 2016 death.

Except for some brief audio and video interview clips, “Moonage Daydream” offers very little insight of Bowie talking about his personal life. He mentions his distant relationship with his mother; his schizophrenic older half-brother Terry Burns, who was the first person to influence Bowie’s interest in art and music; and his soul mate Iman, whom he says he fell in love with at first sight. There’s some archival footage of a divorced Bowie in the ’80s, where he talks about living a nomadic existence for years and confessing that falling in love is scary for him.

In the 1970s, Bowie was seriously addicted to cocaine, which was an addiction he candidly talked about years later in interviews. However, don’t expect “Moonage Daydream” to go into details about sex and drugs in Bowie’s life. Even without these explicit details, anyone can see in the early-to-mid-1970s archival footage there were plenty of signs that Bowie was a cocaine addict, including his sniffing and constantly touching his nose, his fidgety mannerisms in some of his interviews, and his unhealthy physical appearance.

In addition to footage of Bowie, “Moonage Daydream” also includes a lot of pop culture and news clips that somehow relate to whatever music is playing. For example, footage from the documentary “Apollo 11” is briefly shown in keeping with the “moon” theme. The closest to anything “new and orginal” that “Moonage Daydream” offers is some brief sci-fi footage bookended at the beginning and ending of the movie. This footage shows a woman with an animal’s tail while she’s on the moon and looking at a skeleton in an astronaut suit.

It seems that “Moonage Daydream” director Morgen went out of his way not to do a conventional documentary, since Bowie was not a conventional artist. But in doing so, the documentary loses some coherence. After a while, “Moonage Daydream” looks like a mishmash of montages resembling a very long music video. “Moonage Daydream” also has some editing that’s sometimes frustrating to watch. There are at least three different times it looks like this 140-minute movie has ended, and then it drags on some more.

People who are casual fans of Bowie will be intrigued by “Moonage Daydream” but might occasionally get bored. “Moonage Daydream” is worthwhile but not essential viewing for Bowie fans. For any Bowie fans who saw the outstanding “David Bowie Is” museum exhibition world tour that took place from 2013 to 2018, that museum exhibition remains the ultimate Bowie multimedia experience since Bowie’s unfortunate passing.

Neon will release “Moonage Daydream” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on September 23, 2022. The movie is set for a sneak preview in select IMAX theaters on September 12, 2022.

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