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Nonfiction filmmaker Brett Morgen has taken on icons in his previous films including Jane Goodall (“Jane”), the Rolling Stones (“Crossfire Hurricane”) and Kurt Cobain (“Cobain: Montage of Heck”). With “Moonage Daydream,” he turns his lens on David Bowie. It may be Morgen’s biggest project yet — he combed through 5 million assets that the Bowie estate shared with him as well as “everything on YouTube,” Morgen said. He used Bowie performance footage, interview clips, movie clips, stills, artworks (including Bowie’s own paintings) and other visuals including animation to paint an impressionist portrait of an artist and his art.  

The Neon film premieres out of competition in a midnight slot May 23 at Cannes. 

Morgen met with Bowie in 2007 to discuss a “hybrid nonfiction film and the timing wasn’t right on it,” he said. In 2016, he went back to the estate and said he was interested in creating an “experiential IMAX movie, no interviews, no talking heads, no biography.”  

It’s an impressionistic approach, a painterly approach in that the images chosen all build and contextualize Bowie’s art. “That’s what excites me in these endeavors, is that I go into film like Bowie knowing that there’s 27 books about him. So if you want to know that stuff, you can go do that. But what can I offer that you can’t get from those books? That’s generally the first question as I approach it: What can I offer in this space of cinema?” 

“Moonage Daydream” sometimes seems kaleidoscopic, sometimes it focuses on powerful footage of Bowie on stage, sometimes different performances get mashed together, all in the service of divining Bowie’s greatness.  

“Bowie can’t be defined — he can be experienced — and there’s a reason for that. It’s like all art, if you unravel the mystery, it’s like why? Just let it be. It’s in fact, the way he writes songs was often with consonants or sounds, but the combination of those sounds create feelings of warmth or alienation or isolation or whatever the case may be.” 

He had never written an experiential nonfiction film before and was quickly humbled by the undertaking, while also blowing through his initial timeline — a 68-week project turned into a five-year endeavor (although the pandemic didn’t help either). 

Morgen said, “I knew what I wanted to film, I knew how I wanted the film to open and I can tell you what was gonna happen in minute 13. And after trawling through the material for two years, a through- line definitely emerged related to chaos and transience, and which was a little different than change. I think people think of change as the through line of David – you know, cha-cha-changes. But it’s more on a spiritual level, like transience.” 

Morgen said Bowie was interested in how humanity processed and navigated the anxiety of 20th century (and 21st century) life, and studied artists and writers who invented new ways to look at the world. “I spent a year working on the script, which [involved] collating his interviews into these sort of more philosophical endeavors and creating a playlists that would play out a little bit like a jukebox musical, so that the songs were all chosen for the way they captured him in those particular moments, but more importantly because they had some thread back to the through-line of the film about transience. So  that’s how I kind of was able to weave the stitch the narrative together.” 

And then there’s the music – so much to choose from. “There was a sense of like, OK, ‘Moonage Daydream,’ ‘All the Young Dudes,’ ‘Jean Genie.’ Those are crowd pleasers. ‘Cracked Actor’s’ a crowd pleaser, ‘Heroes’ — I guess it’s all great stuff! But I would say the one crowd pleaser that I thought I was gonna get in there was ‘Under Pressure,’ but it’s Queen and David.”  

Like many people, Bowie was a style guru, and an intellectual guru for a pre-teen Morgen. But at 47, he had a massive heart attack. “After the heart attack, [Bowie] became a kind of a spiritual adviser in a way. He was so grounded, and his I’ve listened to everything. I’ve seen every piece of his work and it’s legit. He is the real deal. And he appreciated life so much from the beginning. He says in the film that you get to a point in life where you realize that you have more days behind you than you have in front of you. And that’s the moment that you can really begin to appreciate life. That was a powerful message to have coming out of a heart attack.  

And you know, and I realized that you know, with Bowie I had an opportunity to create a roadmap for how to live a satisfying fulfilling life in the 21st century. So in many ways, this was a sort of letter to my children that I wasn’t able to articulate or put into practice in the first 47 years of my life. And it’s a film that I intended for the world to consume, but it was it’s also highly personal.”