“Moonage Daydream” opens with a long quote regarding the death of God, the ways people filled that vacuum, and an intellectual clean slate in the 20th century — an odd start to a documentary about an iconic pop star. But then, the quote is credited to Bowie himself, and it suddenly fits like a key in an ignition as the viewer is rocketed into a film as kaleidoscopic as the man it examines. Of course, Bowie wasn’t just a pop star. The multidisciplinary artist was a man of many hats and could be described with any number of adjectives, but he could never be defined by them. Director Brett Morgen seems aware of this, as his film isn’t really even a biopic, instead an immersive dive into the icon’s creative mind and process.
The film stays with Bowie through his long career and many artistic pursuits. While it does take a loosely linear approach to his story, chronology isn’t one of its leading concerns as it jumps around in time, inter cutting footage and audio from many different eras of Bowie. It’s an appropriate approach, for if there was ever a man who could be utterly independent of the times he lived in, it would be him.
In “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie is very much posited as an artistic futurist, someone who helped shepherd pop art through the last decades of the 1900s into a new century. One way Morgen does this is by taking moments to cut away from the more typical documentary footage — interview clips, candid footage, location shots, stills, etc. — to 20th century pop culture and Bowie’s own contributions. This includes cinema throughout the century, from “A Trip to the Moon” (1922) to “Blade Runner” (1982), and films Bowie starred in; his music videos and concert footage, situated in the music scene of the day; and all manner of zany Bowie-centric visuals produced over the years, from him floating across the screen to him standing under a spotlight amid falling leaves. All this conflates 20th century art with Bowie, as both an inspiration to him and something that he shaped in turn.
The documentary is no less incredible to the ears as it is to the eyes, befitting the music legend. Each one of his many featured songs is a standout moment, presented in a way that can’t really be mimicked in even the most passionate Spotify listening sessions — see this in a theater if you can. Every aspect of the sound design works in harmony, dissolving into each other in one moment and crashing together in the next.
The film is crafted in every way to be an immersive and irreplaceable experience, and it can be hard to figure out what else it’s trying to do beyond that goal, since for better or worse everything else about it is given lesser importance. It’s far from a biography — leaving out many a significant detail in Bowie’s story— and it never tries to be, but the picture it paints of his life nevertheless feels incomplete. It functions far better as a dive into his creative mind, revealing how his personality and philosophy infused his art even without much of their context in the parts of his life that the film declines to show us.
“Moonage Daydream” is less interested in separating the man from the myth as it is in delivering both to its audience in a stunning cinematic display. Cosmic, earthy, bright, dark, pure, dirty, distant, personal, hedonistic, philosophical — the film wears as many faces as Bowie, and as was true with him, none of them are masks.