In ‘Moonage Daydream,’ David Bowie’s Odyssey Becomes a Cosmic Rush of Color and Sound

David Bowie was always more than a mere rockstar, he was a cultural icon. Just as appropriate is to term him a renaissance man. His curiosity was boundless and his creativity wasn’t content with just making great music. Such a personality deserves a documentary like “Moonage Daydream,” which is a sonic and visual experience that collages Bowie’s life and stage personas. Although it’s nonfiction, this is one of the year’s most dazzling films, enveloping the viewer in a riveting stream of consciousness that flashes before us Bowie as an individual while letting us get a good look at the stage performances. It is difficult to ever know someone’s true, private self. Director Brett Morgen lets Bowie speak without talking heads, like a ghostly narration over the imagery that defined him. The songs do the rest of the talking.

“Moonage Daydream,” named after a track in Bowie’s legendary “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” refuses to be conventional in structure and narrative. It doesn’t begin with the usual narration about where Bowie was born, although it does cover that ground later on. CGI cosmic sequences that seem taken from Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” initiate a dive that begins with a visceral montage set to “Hello Spaceboy.” Then a young Bowie, gaining infamy and adoration for his androgynous Ziggy Stardust persona, appears on British TV openly commenting on being bisexual, basking in the attention given to his bright orange hair and glittery costumes. He spearheads glam rock and the teens are absorbed. Morgen also discards the use of title cards or dates. Few of Bowie’s albums are referenced by name. What we get is the sense of a highly charismatic, refined artist who was also acutely sensitive to the passage of time. 

The David Bowie that emerges from this documentary is more fascinating than any quick recap. He is an individual also shaped by the history of his times. Morgen achieved some of the same effect in his dynamic “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” which did feature talking heads yet also combined animation and concert footage, to frame the Nirvana frontman as a channel through which we could experience Gen X’s overall journey. Within the feverish montages of Bowie onstage, traveling the world and doing interviews, Morgen throws in sequences from German Expressionist cinema, the Beat movement, early rock ‘n roll, surrealist art and anything else that shaped Bowie’s obsessions. We are not seeing a documentary about Bowie. We are instead getting a sense of what it was like to see the world through his eyes. Think about it this way, we ourselves rarely place life into compartments as we go along. The years rush by and our memory banks overflow with names, dates, faces, feelings, etc. “Moonage Daydream” feels that way. Morgen does avoid delving into any anecdotes about hard partying or drugs. Curiously, even Iggy Pop, who Bowie produced and mentored at one point (and to whom he owed the later hit “China Girl”), is absent from the entire production.

We still do get some rich insights into how Bowie’s formation took place. He remembers growing up working class in Brixton, London. His schizophrenic half-brother, Terry, was a major influence in how he introduced a younger Bowie to jazz, the Beat movement and writers like William S. Burroughs. But the early Bowie, going well into his late 30s, comes across as a man who enjoys being alone with himself. There is an interview in the early ‘80s where he admits to not wanting to fall in love because it would mean having to sacrifice some of himself. Morgen intercuts moments in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which marked Bowie’s big screen debut as an alien visitor posing as a millionaire, attempting to save his far away planet. It’s a role that perfectly captures that alluring serenity to Bowie, which contrasts sharply with the electric performer we see crooning “Let’s Dance” with great verve. He then experiments with more industrial sounds in the ‘90s, keeping up with the fashions of the time, flawlessly fitting into them with his unique, unmistakable identity. It’s a rather nice irony Bowie was never out of fashion, since he sounds comfortable with the idea of growing older. By the time he hits 35, he feels life is simply entering a new stage where he’s not too old to make art, but has learned a lot of wise truths since being a much younger performer. Until the end he was painting, learning cinematography and writing. What he couldn’t put into a song he would try to envision on a canvas, or through dance.

In his biography of Jim Morrison, author James Riordan writes that sometimes one good record can tell a musician’s story better than a hefty biography. “Moonage Daydream” is hefty as a documentary, but always absorbing and even hypnotic in the way it does let the images and music of David Bowie tell what amounts to a sonic biography. Morgen elegantly bypasses Bowie’s final battle with cancer, only partially referencing the music of that haunting last album, 2017’s “Blackstar.” The spacey music video of the album’s Grammy-winning titular track is referenced, including the jewel-encrusted astronaut’s skull. We hear over the soundtrack a contemplative Bowie advising us to make the most of life. You can’t stop the aging process, but you can at least use your time to explore and attempt to chase your passions. He would eventually find a lasting bond with Somali model Iman, who would remain his wife until his death in 2016. What we learn about their courtship is brief but wonderfully romantic. As we gain these personal views into Bowie’s thinking process, the soundtrack still features many of the great classics, from “Space Oddity” to “Suffragette City,” now given exciting new form with the overpowering images. “Moonage Daydream” is being released on IMAX and that is certainly the way you want to experience this glowing work of art. It’s the kind of bold, experimental trip an artist like David Bowie deserves.

Moonage Daydream” releases Sept. 16 in select theaters.