The press notes describe Moonage Daydream as Bowie’s ‘roadmap of how to survive the 21st century’, which sounds like a cooked-up PR overpromise. But guess what? It’s true.
Moonage Daydream is a deeply inspiring and exhilarating ride, perhaps most of all for its maverick director Brett Morgen who almost died during the making of the film. Once revived from his heart attack, he spent a week in a coma and then went straight back to work on the film, only to discover that Bowie himself would show him how to live from beyond the grave.
Morgen is already known for revolutionising the documentary film format. He’s worked with Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stone’s kinetic Crossfire Hurricane, shone a light into the unseen, dark corners of Kurt Cobain’s existence in Montage of Heck, and redefined the golden era of Hollywood through the astounding life of producer Robert Evans (The Godfather and Rosemary’s Baby) in The Kid Stays in The Picture. He creates documentaries that force us to make intimate relationships with infamous cultural figures, and now with Moonage Daydream he crafts an incredible experience that makes us feel—perhaps for the first time ever—that we may actually have something in common with the extraordinary man who fell to our earth: David Bowie.
It’s not really correct to call this a ‘documentary’. There are no talking heads. No stuffy historian narrating Bowie’s journey. It’s a kaleidoscopic experience that is guided by the inner voice of Bowie himself. It’s like being a roadie at a Spiders From Mars gig, Buzz Aldrin as he first lands on the moon, or a bug living inside Bowie’s mixing desk… all at once. Moonage Daydream is unlike anything you’ve seen.
First of all, congratulations! You are a striking filmmaker who has made powerful films about incredible musicians…
This has been the best interview yet.
… Stones, Cobain, Bowie. What came first, your strong affinity for music or cinema?
Absolutely cinema. I couldn’t speak until I was five years old, I had a speech impediment. I was speaking, but no one could understand what I was saying. But prior to that, my earliest memories are being in the cinema. I loved being in the cinema. I was kind of mocked and ridiculed until I was about 16 because of my speech impediment, and so I think in some strange way, the cinema was like a safe haven for me. I was not artistic as a kid, I didn’t have any sort of need to purge anything creatively. There was nothing about the way I was being raised that nurtured a creative life—it was actually the opposite, it was creating a lot of pain and it was quite a lonely childhood.
So, I was obsessed—movies were the only thing I had a true belief in. I wasn’t raised religiously, I wasn’t raised spiritually, no one read to me. My parents were never really around, but there was always the cinema. And as we’ve arrived at this moment in our culture where there’s this discourse about watching movies at home versus going to a cinema, I’m just bewildered because I can’t… I don’t watch movies at home, I don’t even know if I enjoy film [at home]. I love popcorn and Diet Coke and sitting in a dark room, munching out and just being overwhelmed by imagery. I like to feel sound, not hear sound. So it was definitely cinema first, and I was very blessed when I was in eighth grade to have a teacher who introduced me to the works of the French New Wave at a point in life when I couldn’t kind of understand the deeper meanings of the context of the films, but what I received was this kind of anarchist approach to cinema that I found incredibly exciting.
And then when I hit puberty, I got very into my own identity through music. At that time in LA, I was heavily influenced and raised by SST Records, The Meat Puppets, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, that was kind of my 80s. In the 80s, the whole world sucked culturally except for a few underground bands. I also really enjoyed driving and I would hate to drive without music. To me, filmmaking is almost identical to the experience I have while I’m driving somewhere with a piece of music. I suppose, in a way, I try to recreate that feeling in my films.
Moonage Daydream manages to demystify Bowie on one hand, and yet elevate his mythology even higher. Was that contrast something that you stumbled into or was that always an intention going into the project?
It was always the intention, to create something that was intimate and sublime. I was never going to present David Jones, or David Bowie. It was always ‘Bowie,’ in quotations. The film was created as a piece of mythology. It was written with Joseph Campbell in mind. I have approached all of my films—going back to The Kid Stays in the Picture—not as definitive, but as my generation’s interpretation of these foundation myths. And myths are stories that get passed down from generation to generation and they’re never about the subject, they’re always about the teller who puts in their own coding and makes these stories relevant to their culture. And so, in approaching Bowie, I was very much aware of that.
It’s an intensely spiritual film. We experience Bowie reaching not just for greatness, but mythic Godliness. He talks about trying to close that gap—not just for himself, but for everyone, and then he’s able to bring those ideas to the stage. Did you set out to make such an existential exploration?
No, I was going to make a theme park ride called David Bowie. That was the goal. What is a theme park ride? It tickles your senses for three minutes and you’re out and that’s it, that’s all I was looking for. Then on January 5th, 2017, I had a heart attack and flatlined for a couple of minutes and was in a coma for a week. And it was right at the start of the project, and so I entered my journey with Bowie from that point of view. I had a heart attack because my life had no balance and I was out of control, my priorities were wrong… and so I started listening to all these interviews with David, and I realised he was providing me with the road map on how to lead a work-balanced and fulfilled life during this age of chaos and fragmentation, and that the film would provide me an opportunity to present that to my children. So, in the event that I do leave prematurely, there would be somewhere that they can go to… not that ‘these are my words’, but these are the words I want them to hear.
That’s beautiful because you can absolutely feel that right at the beginning, you introduce the film in this cosmic, epic way. Everything you’re saying about chaos and fragmentation—were you looking to what he was saying in the material as a way to execute the film?
I was trying to create the aura of Bowie, and so the only way that I was able to access that was to employ his techniques and methodologies into the writing and the visualisation of the film. I do think that the film is more bombastic than Bowie in general, but I think a part of that is because I found a visual complement to his aural, cut-up approach, which I think when you add the visual component to it, is a little more ‘in your face.’ But the idea was definitely to employ oblique strategies to create a film like a good Bowie song; that you thought it meant something, but you recognise that you don’t really know what it’s about, and what’s great about it is that it’s enigmatic and mysterious, which he tells us in the film.
There’s such a strong sense of putting on a show with Bowie—you’ve got the masks, the costumes and the theatrics. But when did you realise that one of the keys to this film would be the observed outtakes?
The second the film started. I knew everything was going to be a performance. Obviously, his stage performances when he was singing were overtly performed, his film roles were performed. I reason that when he appeared in a documentary like Cracked Actor, he was performing, and when he was doing interviews, he was performing. So there is no unfiltered media—it’s all filtered. Does that mean it’s false? All I saw was truth. I think that also speaks to the idea of the film as myth, and that was also liberating. So I made a very conscious decision going into it that the visual vocabulary of the film, I wouldn’t distinguish between him appearing in a documentary or him appearing in Man Who Fell to Earth; that they would all be artefacts of a life. I’ve long believed that dominant cinema contains as much, if not more, ethnographic information than documentaries, particularly as they reveal the social codes of the time we’re living through. This work agreed with my overall philosophies about dominant cinema.
One of the things that separate your documentaries from others is the ability to show the truth of a legend in a way we haven’t seen before. This happens with the in-between moments, where we get this little secret window into someone.
Music video outtakes have been the greatest source for all three of my music films. The most powerful imagery in Montage of Heck—well, the most beautiful, because the most powerful may be some of the stuff of Kurt on drugs—is the scene of him in the poppy field, which is an outtake from ‘Heart Shaped Box,’ or the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ outtakes. When I saw them, I thought they were totally prophetic, in that what I was watching was his fans devouring him. It was at a moment where in any other music doc, when the band takes off, it’s supposed to be celebrated, and I turn it into a funeral dirge and the footage provided that. In Moonage, perhaps the most exciting piece of archival material I got was outtakes to ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson.’ Now, if you’d told me in 2016 that my favourite find was going to be ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson,’ I would’ve been like, ‘Hearts what? What song?’ And I would’ve watched the music video and gone, ‘I don’t need that footage.’
It’s stunning, it’s one of my favourite parts of the whole film.
Yeah! I’ll tell you a very quick, Bowie-esque story. I had to be careful with what I scanned because we couldn’t afford to scan every frame of music video outtakes, we had to be a bit selective. But there were no video dubs from most of this stuff, so it’s just random. I asked for a scan of ‘The Hearts Filthy Lesson,’ and whenever we received footage from the film scanner it was like a fire alarm would go off in the building. My assistant would know to immediately ring me and I would stop whatever I was doing because I wanted to be the first person to put eyes on it. I would get very jealous of the assistant editor…
Who’d already seen it?
Yeah, if they came in and were like, ‘Hey dude, I just digitized that footage and it looks amazing!’ I’d be like, ‘Fuck you, Alex! I get to see it first.’
Ha! You wanted virgin eyes on it.
Yeah, so I get this two or three hours of material and I’m like, if I’m going to sit here for the next two hours watching this, I might as well throw some music on so I can be thinking about music at the same time. And I just randomly grabbed this Philip Glass tune from some of the work that he did on the ‘Low’ symphony, and before I pressed play I dropped a queue, I didn’t even know what the queue was. In fact, later I found it’s not even a fucking Bowie queue, it’s called ‘The Light,’ it’s the one song of the album that’s not a Bowie thing.
I threw it on, pressed play and in two seconds I was like ‘Oh, this is interesting, let me get some dialogue and throw it in there,’ just so I could see what I was cutting. I’d just been working on a module of David talking about his creative process—I put them all together, have not edited or adjusted anything, I press play and that was pretty much the scene as it unfolds [in the film]. David came up from a crouch as the light faded up from him reaching for the heavens in perfect synchronicity to the Glass track. I tried to better it and I never could.
You were obviously listening to what the film was telling you and responding to it beautifully.
[Robert] Evans says, ‘Luck is when one opportunity meets preparation.’
And I think that this whole film sort of satisfies that.
Moonage Daydream is now showing in IMAX and cinemas across the country. Ben Briand is a director working across narrative and commercial disciplines.