It’s the natural state of celebrity to myth make. The industry is built on the long-held human tradition of embellishment, gossip, rumor and “you won’t believe what’s on page nine.”
Music titan and starman David Bowie embodied this idea clearer than anyone. “The artist doesn’t exist,” he once said in an interview. For Bowie, who had occupied and reshaped almost every artistic space, to say this seems paradoxical. How can one speak of their own nonexistence?
Director Brett Morgen’s documentary “Moonage Daydream” frames Bowie in the holy glow of a human deity, dissecting the particularities of his supernovaic celebrity and reputation for the fantastic. Meticulously crafted through archival footage by Morgen, who also holds the writing and editing credits, the film’s blend of media is utterly hypnotic. Layers upon layers of filmed performances, music, interview clips and documented artistic endeavors manifest Bowie’s mythos.
The documentary begins with another quote by Bowie: “If we could not take the place of God, how could we fill the space we had created within ourselves?” As told through his performances, music and personal philosophies, Bowie is transcendent in Morgen’s care.
There is little mention of the typical historical necessities, such as how Bowie got his start or pictures of his album covers, only adding to the sense of the phantasmagorical incarnate. The doctrine that Bowie came to represent, an esoteric joie de vivre built on the eccentric, is just as much the subject of the documentary as the man himself.
Parallel to the depiction of Bowie as phantasmagorical is a study on the human practice of deification, the instinct for myth. Morgen shows early on that Bowie believed he was a sort of vessel for the beliefs of his audience. He admits that their rereading of his work — his lyrics, his dress, his flourishes — is just as much a part of the performance as his is, maybe even more so.
Taking his cue from Bowie, Morgen allows the documentary to exist almost entirely in subtext. It is untraditionally nonlinear, with bits and pieces of the story left for the audience to fill in themselves. Occasionally, clips repeat, but the spaces between the occurrences are filled by new ideas, reframing the clips’ earlier conclusions.
As the film progresses, it becomes even more apparent that Morgen uses Bowie’s philosophies to craft his documentary. During one sequence about the production of Heroes, Bowie divulges how he was searching for a new language in his music. There are times where current transitory methods are insufficient for articulating ourselves. By reshaping what it means to be a documentary, Morgen effectively makes a piece of art about art and its importance.
More specifically, it’s a piece of art about storytelling — why we do it, why we need it. It is permeated by the idea that when people need something to believe in, they create it. Clips from media outside of Bowie’s work suggest the moment he occupied, offering a tapestry of cultural background contextualizing how inseparable he was from his era.
“Moonage Daydream” is the most recent in a series of big-screen nostalgic trips for the music of the seventies. Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury, the frontman of rock band Queen, earned him the leading man Oscar back in 2019 and “Rocketman” put Elton John’s visage on the silver screen not long after. But what “Moonage Daydream” captures that those movies don’t is the understanding that art history is far more than the events that happened. Rather than puppeting history for unfamiliar eyes, Morgen opts for giving the audience all the parts, especially the intangible, to truly articulate the broader scope of the whole.
Morgen’s “Moonage Daydream” gets its title from a Bowie song of the same name. In the track, Bowie sings of the incomprehensible — claiming to be “an alligator” and a “mama papa coming for you,” before drawing some metaphor about a “pink monkey bird.” It’s utter nonsense when examined at face value, but just like the documentary, the song is a contradictory amalgamation of realist escapism at its finest. It is an acknowledgement that in all our complexities, internal and external, what is tangible is not always sufficient. In the pursuit of what’s real, sometimes a little myth making is vital.