Why Brett Morgen Refused to Define David Bowie With ‘Moonage Daydream’

TheWrap magazine: “Bowie defies facts, defies definition and is beautifully mysterious,” the famed documentarian says

Moonage Daydream
"Moonage Daydream" (Neon)

A version of this story about “Moonage Daydream” first appeared in the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Brett Morgen’s previous documentaries have covered such notable figures as Kurt Cobain (“Montage of Heck”), Robert Evans (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”), Jane Goodall (“Jane”) and the Rolling Stones (“Crossfire Hurricane”). He tackles another titanic figure in “Moonage Daydream” for which he spent years venturing through the exhaustive archives of the late David Bowie.  

Rather than following a standard biographical path, the film is structured as an assaultive and immersive IMAX-scaled fantasia. You’ll probably learn something about Bowie, but mostly you’ll experience him.

This is a documentary about David Bowie, but it’s not really a documentary about David Bowie. It’s an immersion into the world of David Bowie, I guess.
Yeah. Saying “a documentary about David Bowie” would be setting up a false set of expectations for the viewer. This was very consciously and deliberately made as an experiment in form to see if we could create something other than the standardized music biopic. I wanted to explore if there was a way to do a non-biographical experience that would ultimately bring us to a truth.

And to do that, you used an amazing array of footage.
Most people don’t know this, but David saved everything. And for the last 25 years of his life, he was coming to the office weekly, working with an archivist. But he had said, “I don’t want to participate in a traditional documentary.” So I arrived (after Bowie’s death) and said, “Listen, I’m only interested in your archive, and I’m not really interested in biography. I’m not interested in facts, I’m not interested in dates.” And what I didn’t realize then, because I hadn’t begun my deep dive into Bowie, is how apropos that was for a film about David Bowie, an artist who defies facts, defies definition and is beautifully mysterious.

What I love about Bowie is that the more I listen to David Bowie, the more I know about myself. I don’t get closer to David Jones (Bowie’s real name). My films are not about the subject. They’re kind of bringing the subject to life through form and content that you can’t get in a book. Bowie is mysterious. He’s mercurial, he’s sublime, he’s hard to pin down.

He’s not the only singular artist you’ve made a movie about.
I’ve had access to some of the most amazing minds of my lifetime – Jane Goodall and the Rolling Stones and Kurt Cobain and Robert Evans and Abbie Hoffman. And I love them all. They’re all singular. But what makes David unique is that for most of us, it’s human nature to cling to our success. We all want comfort and security, and very few stars in entertainment are willing to risk their fame to scratch a creative itch. And he did it time and time again.

(Laughs) There’s a funny question I hope you don’t ask me. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews, and my trigger now is when someone goes, “Why Bowie?” I want to walk out. Like, really? Is that a trick question? How is that even a question?

There’s a moment in the film where Bowie talks about his attraction to fragments and chaos. I feel as if he’s giving you a blueprint for the movie.
Yeah. The most challenging part editorially was to try to create a sense of spontaneity in something that I spent seven years massaging. And to do that and to construct the film, I needed to go into the deep end. I needed to go into the wilderness by myself and come back with whatever I came back with. I employed as many techniques as I could and methodologies that I had learned through my seven years of study of David Bowie. That means everything from Oblique Strategies (creative tools developed by Brian Eno and used in Eno’s work with Bowie) to some deeper sort of philosophical approaches to art. Like, there are no accidents, no mistakes, only happy accidents that guided me through the editing. I would constantly come on something that was an accident and be like, “Hey, that looks OK.”

There’s a chronology to the film, but at times you’re open to fracturing that chronology. At the beginning there are snippets of “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars,” but then suddenly we’re into “Hallo Spaceboy,” which was more than 20 years later.
It’s not a chronology based on time, it’s a chronology based on a hero’s journey. So there are no time stamps in the film, there are no album titles – it’s an interior journey. It’s funny, this film. You can either let it wash over you, or you can sit there and go, “Where’s Iggy Pop? Where’s Lou Reed?” The very few people who come at it that way, I’m always like, “If you knew that, why did you want me to take precious IMAX real estate to have a talking head go, ‘And then he worked with Iggy Pop…’?” I don’t get it. Maybe your Bowie needs to be explained, but my Bowie does not need to be explained.

Read more from the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue here.

Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap