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film review
Open this photo in gallery:Moonage Daydream illuminates the life and genius of David Bowie, one of the most prolific and influential artists of our time. Image credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Moonage Daydream is as much high-spirited cinema as documentary. But just because it’s not journalism doesn’t mean truths are not exposed.Courtesy of TIFF

  • Moonage Daydream
  • Written and directed by Brett Morgen
  • Starring David Bowie
  • Classification PG; 140 minutes
  • Opens Sept. 16

Critic’s Pick

Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah.

Brett Morgen’s vibrant new documentary on David Bowie is self-billed as an “immersive cinematic experience.” Sometimes the studio marketing people get it right. Moonage Daydream, which hits theatres and select IMAX screens on Friday, is a mutant bio-doc variant; a maximalist montage of clips, quotes and concert footage; a trippy mediation on art; and a satisfying jukebox musical with far-out connotations.

What it is not, however, is a standard rock doc – no war stories, no talking heads. Any pontificating comes from the late Bowie, who left behind a wealth of televised interviews. The only narration is supplied briefly by Dick Cavett, whose baffled introduction of Bowie to The Dick Cavett Show in 1974 also serves as an introduction to Morgen’s film.

“Who is he?” Cavett asks about the glam-rock weirdo. “What is he? Where did he come from? Is he a creature of a foreign power? Is he a creep? Is he dangerous? Is he smart? Dumb? Nice to his parents? Real? Put on? Crazy? Sane? Man? Woman? Robot? What is this?”

I imagine Morgen is interested in most, if not all, those questions. That doesn’t mean he addresses them straight on. His film is about impressions, not answers. Trying to nail down a shape-shifting popstar who had a faker’s reputation is a mug’s game Morgen doesn’t bother to play.

The American documentarian is a stylist, with credits that include Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Jane (on primatologist Jane Goodall) and June 17, 1994, a thinking-man’s sports documentary for ESPN on the police chase of O.J. Simpson in 1994. His The Kid Stays in the Picture from 2002 is a cockeyed look at film executive Robert Evans. A rarity in the genre, it’s funny.

Moonage Daydream is as much high-spirited cinema as documentary. But just because it’s not journalism doesn’t mean truths are not exposed.

Despite the lack of a rigorous narrative, threads do emerge – chiefly alienation. In the answer to one of Cavett’s many questions – is Bowie nice to his parents? – we learn the parent-son relationship was not a warm one. Watching a young Bowie awkwardly answer questions about his mother is a little sad. Later, an older Bowie talks about moving from city to city and never owning a home and never planning to do so.

Bowie was fascinated by outer space and other worlds, as represented in his personas (Ziggy Stardust), songs (Space Oddity) and backing bands (The Spiders From Mars). Watching Moonage Daydream, it easy to view Bowie the Starman as an emotional isolationist – a floating astronaut just barely tethered to his spaceship.

As for Cavett wondering if Bowie is sane, it is something we see Bowie himself question. That his older half-brother suffered from mental illness was dealt with more extensively in Gabriel Range’s 2020 biopic, Stardust. That film wasn’t sanctioned by Bowie’s estate; Moonage Daydream is, which perhaps explains why Bowie’s first wife, Angie, is hardly mentioned or seen but his widow, Iman, figures much larger.

The concert footage is mostly from the 1970s. The amount will satisfy casual fans, but the nerds will want more. Bowie’s acting is also highlighted. He wasn’t great at it, as his Broadway turn as the Elephant Man reveals.

To explore Bowie’s “strange fascinations,” Morgen uses a collage of photos and film clips, from Barbarella to beatniks to Charlie Chaplin. Musical influences? Not so much.

As a philosopher, Bowie recognized the transience of life, while “struggling to comprehend a deep mystery.” He believed in being present and from time to time blowing up art’s processes. He described himself as an “adventurer.” The film is ambiguous on whether Bowie made his destination. More than once an image of a skeleton in a spacesuit is flashed.

What Moonage Daydream does tell us is that Bowie believed that it was the trip that mattered, not the resting place. He embraced life’s chaos and question marks with great music, bad dance moves and, ultimately, a shrug: “Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.”

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