Wednesday 28 September 2022

Heroes: "Moonage Daydream"

If the movie mainstream has succeeded in anything this past decade, it's been making fan service feel like a special event. No longer willing or able to grasp the universal, our filmmakers now routinely reach out to ultra-specific, ultra-enthusiastic cliques and groups, hoping against hope for the review that adopts the formulation "if you like
Star Wars/Marvel/DC/whatever, you'll love this". (Precedent is profitable.) The documentary Moonage Daydream is that, but for David Bowie; it's been as carefully curated from the official Bowie archive as the touring exhibition David Bowie Is.... You'll look in vain for any sign of the teenage groupies from one end of this career or the midlife crisis of Tin Machine from the other, the material a more critical sensibility might feel obliged to work in somewhere. Instead, the director Brett Morgen (who did something similar for Robert Evans in The Kid Stays in the Picture, and for Kurt Cobain in Cobain: Montage of Heck) engages in two hours of energetic, often imaginative, yet generally wide-eyed cheerleading for Bowie the artist, the thinker, the free spirit, the shapeshifting stage persona. It's the best of Bowie, from start to finish. 

The film's biographical elements are secondary to the setpiece spectacle of the singer at and on various stages: the live performances he gave in his Ziggy and post-Ziggy pomp, the more reflective appearances of the 1980s, once he'd left the Spiders from Mars behind to pursue his own path through musical space. By way of punctuation, we get cutaways to fans visibly moved by their idol's lyrics, presence, aura, each shot of an awestruck face its own little nudge in the casual cinemagoer's ribs. As produced by concert promoters Live Nation, the whole often resembles one of those one-night-only simulcasts that now get beamed into otherwise moribund multiplex screens, only with the difference of featuring a musician who's already taken his final bow. Morgen waves his pompoms hard, and makes such a noise, in the hope of bringing Bowie back to life before our eyes; his is fan service with a distinctly American element of religious revivalism. I was stirred and swayed by a lot of it, if never quite fully converted.

It helps that Morgen begins his order of service with "Hallo Spaceboy", being Nineties Bowie looking back at Seventies Bowie and marvelling at how far he'd travelled: a song that sets the parameters for the following two hours. (Full disclosure: I come this way as someone who most admired Bowie for being Pet Shop Boys-adjacent, the man who emboldened the strange and shy creatures creeping out their bedrooms and up the pop charts towards the end of the last century to express themselves.) Of course, Bowie is a worthy subject of extended cinematic study, in large part because, pre-Prince, pre-Madonna, pre-Gaga, Bowie was the pop star more obsessed than most with image - it's what landed him on the radar of filmmakers from Oshima to Lynch. It's just conceivable that the conclusion the young David Jones drew from the first phase of his career was that he simply wasn't being photographed often enough, or in the right way, at a moment when the look of pop was becoming every bit as significant as the sound. 

Morgen scatters a few monochrome snapshots of this whey-faced, Mod-about-town Bowie - the skin that was quickly shed, or rather thickened up with pancake - but the bulk of the footage here stems from that era when Bowie had colour on his cheeks and all the world's cameras pointed quizzically in his direction. Your correspondent was too young even to recall Boy George's sensational, tabloid-alarming debut on TOTP, so a lot of this was new to me - and the film is at its strongest in evoking just how staggering it must have been to have this extraterrestrial figure appear on your TV set in a drab front room in the middle of the 1970s; and more specifically, how staggering to have him appear amid the cosy prime-time squareness of Harty and Parky - the shows your mum and dad watched - suggesting by his very being another, less square, markedly more fluid and bohemian way of going about one's business. Chatshow Bowie really does seem like an emissary, thinking beyond the dull flatness of 1970s Britain, and encouraging the open-minded onlooker to do likewise. One choice, typically droll statement: "The imagination can dry up in England". To Berlin!

Thereafter, Moonage Daydream falls a bit too readily into the ill-defined rhythms of the New Documentary, so determined to avoid staid chronologies and singular points-of-view that it risks turning circles, chasing its own tail, cancelling itself out. As is the post-Kapadian norm, this is Bowie in his own words, often Bowie in conversation with himself, allowing Morgen to cut freely between the middle-aged man confronting death and the young punk playing dress-up, between the junkie and the artist, the mime and the philosopher. Sometimes this mix-and-match approach pays off: Morgen consistently finds new routes into and through the music, typically by sourcing alternate versions of songs made familiar by heavy radio rotation. (It's a stratospheric improvement on 2020's unauthorised biopic Stardust, which couldn't afford the rights to anything.) Sometimes, however, it misses the mark, starts babbling, gets het up over nothing much. We get two goes at the paintings - a Sunday sideline - which are only interesting as paintings by Bowie, while a brief interlude on the singer's Broadway stint as John Merrick only underlines the limitations of his creative range. When he opened his mouth to sing, Bowie could transcend anything and everything; when he did so to speak the words of others, it all became oddly self-conscious.

Fans - for it is that point in the review - will likely be delighted to find themselves immersed in what's effectively been constructed as a Bowie flotation tank; the wilder you are about Bowie, the more you're bound to love Moonage Daydream, largely because it, too, is wild for its subject. At around the sixtieth insert of Dave riding Japanese escalators, however, I started longing for at least a little more sifting and structure, something beyond a fanzine's cut-and-paste. Unmoored from its original context, some of this footage is merely free-floating; and while the interviews give up a fair share of wisdom, there's also the odd whiff of lofty musician BS. You don't spot these things when you're desperate for another glimpse of your idol, and hanging on his every word; Morgen is operating from the perspective that all this material is gold, doubly so now that the individual who generated it has left us. That's understandable, but the sense of Bowie the film leaves us with is naggingly superficial. It orbits the loneliness, the alienation, the damage and despair, as in a great interview with the late Mavis Nicholson that catches DB in a mid-Eighties transitional phase, with his guard partway lowered, and gets close to the source of his restlessness. But it can't ever touch down on Bowie the man, because it's too in thrall to Bowie the unknowable enigma, the Buddha of suburbia, Bowie-as-lifestyle-accessory. It wants Bowie to be what any fan wants Bowie to be, which is why the film plays as more consolidatory (consolatory, even) than revelatory. It's very Major Tom - indeed, it's the film you could well imagine Bowie directing about himself, had his ambitions extended into this field. But even Major Tom had to check in with Ground Control from time to time.

Moonage Daydream is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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