Brett Morgen, the freewheeling director behind “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” “Jane” and “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” is finalizing a top-secret David Bowie project based on thousands of hours of rare performance footage of the musician, most of it previously uncirculated, sources confirm to Variety.
Morgen has been at work on the Bowie film, for which an official title has not been disclosed, for the last four years. A source close to the production cryptically describes it as “neither documentary nor biography, but an immersive cinematic experience built, in part, upon thousands of hours of never before seen material.”
Sources say live concert footage plays a central role in the film, and that Morgen is eyeing an IMAX release. The filmmaker wears a number of hats on the project, taking on editing, writing and producing duties, in addition to directing.
A Sundance Film Festival premiere in late January could be in the cards. The Park City fest — which will have a significant in-person presence this year after the pandemic forced the 2021 event to go largely virtual — falls just after the six-year anniversary of Bowie’s death on Jan. 10, 2016.
The musician’s long-time producer Tony Visconti is adding his bona fides to the film, serving as music producer. Meanwhile, the Oscar-winning sound team behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” is also mixing and designing the project. Re-recording mixers are Oscar winner Paul Massey and David Giammarco (“Ford v Ferrari”), while the sound design team includes John Warhurst and Nina Hartstone, both of whom picked up Academy Awards for the Freddie Mercury biopic.
Morgen acquired the rights to the material himself, and BMG and Live Nation are financiers as well as producers, alongside the director’s own production banner, Public Road.
Crucially, the pic’s been made with the support and cooperation of the David Bowie estate. Bowie’s widow, the model Iman, recently told Variety that the family is firmly against authorizing a biopic of Bowie’s life: “It’s always a no. We always ask each other, ‘Would he do it?’ He wouldn’t,” as evidenced by Todd Haynes’ 1998 film “Velvet Goldmine,” which has a clearly Bowie-like figure at the center and is named after one of his songs, but for which Bowie declined to license his music. But clearly, the family was more amenable to a live concert-oriented documentary about the singer, particularly from someone with Morgen’s track record.
The film is Morgen’s first major feature effort since the release of his celebrated Nat Geo documentary about primatologist Jane Goodall. The all-archive “Jane” won two Primetime Emmy Awards in 2017 and a host of other prizes during awards season. Its exclusion as an Oscar nominee (Netflix’s Russian doping scandal film “Icarus” picked up the documentary Oscar that year) was seen by many in the non-fiction world as a major upset.
Prior to “Jane,” Morgen won plaudits for the Sundance-premiering “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” which chronicled the Nirvana frontman’s life through to his suicide in 1994. Much more than a straight biopic, the film incorporated animation and Cobain’s own artwork and sound collages to paint a more nuanced portrait of the troubled musician.
Morgen was Oscar nominated alongside co-director Nanette Burstein for 1999 documentary “On the Ropes,” which turned on three young boxers and their coach. His other musical documentary efforts include VH1 series “Say It Loud: A Celebration of Black Music in America” and “Crossfire Hurricane.”
The latter 2012 documentary about The Rolling Stones marked their 50th year together as a band, and followed the group’s early years through to 1981, layering audio interviews with the band on top of archival footage.
Morgen’s Bowie offering is the latest in a series of documentaries about the singer.
British director Francis Whately made a trilogy of films about the musician, beginning with “David Bowie: Five Years” (2013), about his five seminal albums, followed by “David Bowie: The Last Five Years” (2017), covering the final two records, and most recently, an exploration of the early years in “David Bowie: Finding Fame” (2019).
There are also famous early works about the singer, notably Alan Yentob’s “Cracked Actor” (1975) for the BBC, which followed Bowie while he was struggling with cocaine addiction in 1974, as well as documentary legend D. A. Pennebaker’s concert film “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” (1983), from footage of the July 1973 concert where Bowie retired the film’s namesake character.
Bowie’s estate and Warner Music Group recently announced a global partnership to bring his vast recorded-music catalog from 1968 through 2016 under the Warner umbrella. The new deal sees Bowie’s albums from 2000 through 2016, which were originally released via Sony Music, joining his 1968-1999 catalog at Warner.
Jem Aswad contributed to this report.