Just before the Cannes Film Festival midnight-show premiere of the David Bowie documentary “Moonage Daydream,” the film’s writer, director, and editor, Brett Morgen, didn’t simply stroll down the red carpet. As Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” blared from the promenade speakers, Morgen danced — and pranced and pogo-ed, and flashed a cheeky madman grin, and by the time he entered the theater, the crowd, taking all this in on a giant video screen, gave him an even more rapturous than usual Cannes ovation. Morgen had the right look for these antics. He started off his career as a documentary geek, but around the time of “Montage of Heck,” his 2015 film about Kurt Cobain, he began to style his hair in a fashionably disheveled wet-look mane. Tall and aggressive, he entered the Lumière like a would-be rock star.
The reason I bring this up is that I think it’s relevant to the aesthetics of “Moonage Daydream,” which is Morgen’s third pop-music documentary — but, more than “Montage of Heck” or the 2012 Rolling Stones film “Crossfire Hurricane,” it’s a decidedly unconventional one. The movie is two hours and 20 minutes of sound and fury: a kaleidoscopic head-trip meditation on David Bowie, rock’s shape-shifting astronaut of identity.
When it opens this fall, “Moonage Daydream” will play in IMAX theaters, and that feels right, because this is a movie to give yourself over to. It’s no mere epic music video, though at times it feels like one, as it rides the pulse of Bowie’s music like a psychedelic locomotive. We’ve seen trippy documentaries before, but Morgen seems to have created this movie to be rock ‘n’ roll. That’s part of its colliding-image irreverence. Watching “Moonage Daydream,” there are essential facts you won’t hear, and many touchstones that get skipped over (in the entire movie, you’ll never even see an album cover). But you get closer than you expect to the chilly sexy enigma of who David Bowie really was.
One reason Morgen may have chosen not to make a standard chronological biographical portrait — though the film unfurls Bowie’s life more or less in order — is that there have been two very fine Bowie documentaries in the last decade: “David Bowie: Five Years” (2013), which covered his crucial blast-off phase as the androgynous demon chameleon of the early ’70s, and its companion piece, “David Bowie: The Last Five Years” (2017), made after Bowie’s death in 2016, which scrupulously covered his late period of relative experimental quietude, his marriage to Iman, and the haunting creation of “Blackstar” (the album and performance piece) when he knew he was dying of cancer. These were terrific films, and there was no need for Morgen to go back over that terrain.
Instead, he became the first filmmaker to work in full cooperation with the Bowie estate, which gave him unprecedented access to its archives: a trove of unseen performances, as well as rare paintings, drawings, recordings, photographs, films, and journals — a total of 5 million items in all. This amounted to the biggest David Bowie candy store an adventurous filmmaker could wish for, and Morgen has used it to tell Bowie’s story in a hurtling multimedia fashion that dissolves a lot of the usual categories of our thinking about Bowie (“Look, he’s the Thin White Duke now!” “Look at all the doors Ziggy Stardust opened!” “That’s when he got off the drugs…”). The film lets those phases melt into each other, so that we register not just the ch-ch-changes but the underlying continuity.
For all that, “Moonage Dream” is no hippie-dippy daydream. Bowie narrates the film, with Morgen splicing together interview clips so that Bowie is basically ruminating on who and where he was at any given moment. He’s a magician who’s willing to reveal his tricks, and also a happy doomsday philosopher; describing the cultural fragmentation that set in during the ’70s, he says he embraced the idea that “Everything is rubbish, and all rubbish is wonderful.”
That meshes nicely with Morgen’s filmmaking, which is a form of apocalyptic montage. It’s the school of pop-drenched free association that, yes, we think of as music video, but Morgen evokes the most dangerous and visionary landmarks of the form, like “Natural Born Killers” and Godard’s “The Image Book” and the 28-minute film that started it all — Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising,” one of the 10 greatest movies ever made. Morgen quotes from it several times, as well as from other Anger films (and also from “Metropolis” and “Ivan the Terrible” and “Triumph of the Will” and “Nosferatu” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”). He uses these totems of 20th century image-making to tap the life force — the surge — they represent. Life is change, and movies (shot by shot) are change, and David Bowie celebrated the violence and freedom of that.
The movie starts, as any David Bowie documentary must, with the detonation of reality that was Ziggy Stardust. Morgen uses amazing concert scenes — so much better than the disappointingly lackluster footage we saw in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1983 documentary — to show us what an enraptured outlaw Bowie was when he first landed. The alien rooster hair, the burning harlequin eyes, the killer legs, the smirk of lust — it’s not just that he straddled genders but that he infused the straddling with a rock star’s desire, and with music that was both melodic and volcanic. Morgen has mixed the soundtrack himself, and the concert scenes have a sonic power we’re not used to. Sure, we don’t just go to a documentary to experience the transcendence of “All the Young Dudes.” But that’s certainly why we go to a concert movie, and “Moonage Daydream” is a kind of hybrid — a hallucinatory jukebox doc with killer subtext.
There’s a paradox to Bowie. In the gender-bender years, he turned the status quo upside down with every look and gesture, yet part of him was just having fun and knew it. There’s a clip of him on a British talk show, in full glam regalia (and with yellow teeth worthy of a vampire), and he looks even freakier than he did on stage with the Spiders from Mars, yet he’s as sincere and polite as can be — a lamb in wolf’s cross-dressing. He wasn’t telling anyone how to be. But by parading his inner self, he was saying: Who any of us is inside is weirder than most of us would care to admit.
If you were asked how many distinct looks David Bowie sported over his career, you might say 20 or 30 or 40. But apart from his iconic phases, he was such a chameleonic fashion plate, and appeared in so many different mediums, that in “Moonage Daydream” we probably see him in a couple of hundred different guises. Some come out of nowhere: In 1976, when he went to Berlin to record “Low” with Brian Eno, that was his stripped-down, post-spaceman era, but in the movie we see an extraordinary concert clip of him performing “Heroes” in the late ’70s, and he looks like a clean-cut Aryan android in a collarless shirt, which only adds to the song’s spooky allure. There is footage of him — too much of it — from a 1984 documentary in which we see him wandering up and down escalators and through Bangkok during his Serious Moonlight Tour, looking like the platinum-blond version of a film-noir hero. And there’s footage of him in assorted states of drag, and also military duds, which only Bowie could turn into another form of drag.
It’s telling that the Berlin years are the one time Morgen slows the film down and gets semi-conventional. It’s when Bowie famously got off the train, and Morgen obviously regards Eno as the apex of cool. But given that, it would have been nice if he’d shone a comparable spotlight on Nile Rogers, the genius of Chic who resuscitated Bowie’s career during the “Let’s Dance” era. Still, it’s fascinating to hear Bowie, during this period, acknowledge that he had become a mainstream entertainer in a not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that way.
Here’s one reason I’m glad that “Moonage Daydream” is as non-traditional as it is: Morgen doesn’t have to pretend — as so much of the music-critic establishment does — that Bowie’s albums remained vital after the mid-’80s. With apologies to Tin Machine groupies, the film says, implicitly, that the essential phases of his career took place from 1969, when “Space Oddity” was released, through the Glass Spider Tour in 1987.
A personal note: I wish Morgen had found some space for “Station to Station” (1976), which I think is Bowie’s greatest album, even though (or maybe because) he recorded it while strung out on cocaine. But Morgen does at least use one of its most incandescent tracks, “Word on a Wing,” to counterpoint Bowie’s romance with Iman; the movie sees their marriage as a work of art as surely as any of Bowie’s albums was. There’s a section where Bowie speaks, with touching insecurity, about his paintings, talking about how he was offered several chances to show them that he wound up turning down. Then Morgen shows us the paintings. They’re incredible.
If “Moonage Daydream” has a theme, it’s that David Bowie kept evolving in order to stay himself. And that the evolution he was talking about wasn’t, as we tend to think of it, the expression of a “modern” (or mod) sensibility. Sure, we live at a time when people can change almost anything about themselves. More than ever, our identities seem liquid, and David Bowie was the avatar of that. Yet in “Moonage Daydream,” the more you listen to and look at Bowie in all those different guises, the more you see just one man: not a chameleon but a searcher. The changes he went through as if he were surfing them are the changes that life puts all of us through. Life, says “Moonage Daydream,” is a lot like rock ‘n’ roll. It exists in the moment, and that moment will soon be destroyed. But it’s beautiful while it lasts.