For months, filmmaker Brett Morgen was lost in his David Bowie obsessions, sidelined by writer’s block. Now he was wandering a train station in Albuquerque, New Mexico, seeking clarity in his quest to create Moonage Daydream, a vibrant, fully immersive and wildly non-traditional documentary about the late groundbreaking recording artist.
Decades earlier, Bowie himself had spent some time in Albuquerque while making his first film, 1976’s far-out sci-fi drama The Man Who Fell to Earth. He also preferred trains to air travel. Morgen hoped Bowie’s example might help, and documented his moments of desperation in a video diary on his phone. In the recording, you can almost see the anxiety in Morgen’s face, bearded and incognito in sunglasses and a hat, as he hurried to his train back home to Los Angeles.
“The second the train left the station, it just started pouring out of me, which was a nod to Bowie,” says Morgen, who eventually typed out a script of 44 pages. Standing now in his L.A. office, the director can look at the video diary with amusement and relief, but the crisis was real. “My wife would tell you that there were too many nights where I would come home at 11:30, throw myself on the bed and start crying. And she couldn’t console me.”
The lesson, he says, was about “getting yourself out of your comfort zone, and the great inspiration that Bowie received from being in transit.”
In May, Moonage Daydream premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a lengthy standing ovation for its layered, impressionistic approach to Bowie’s life and art, with stunning sound and visuals. It was praised as a monumental portrait of the chameleon alternately remembered as Ziggy Stardust, Major Tom, the Thin White Duke, and the Blackstar.
Morgen approaches its subject as a hero’s journey, the story of a rock star as artist and philosopher, a charismatic searcher. “All people, no matter who they are, all wish they’d appreciated life more,” Bowie’s voice tells us. “It’s what you do in life that’s important, not how much time you have, or what you wish you’d done.”
In the very early days of working on Moonage, Morgen had a heart attack at 47, much as Bowie did at 57 (sending him into semi-retirement for several years). That event changed the course of the film. The director says it pointed him towards some personal changes, while making the doc a “celebration of life and a roadmap to how to lead a more balanced and fulfilled life during an era of chaos and fragmentation.”
The L.A. native also takes care to remain focused on the public “Bowie,” rather than the Englishman born David Jones in 1947, and the private family man he became for the last two decades of his life. As a child, Bowie was a Little Richard fanatic who went Mod in the ‘60s, was a space-age folk singer, and the original glam-rock superstar, gender-blending to mainstream alarm. His explorations moved from rock to soul and brooding electronics to danceable stadium rock sensation and jazz-fueled farewell.
Morgen set out to create something less biographical and more emotional, closer to the experience of a Pink Floyd Laserium show, with psychedelic splashes of color layered with the vintage footage. In other words, “no information, no facts, no biography, just like a theme park ride on David Bowie,” he explains. “If one can extract a deeper meaning from it, that’s fantastic. But ultimately the first goal was simply to allow the audience to swim in Bowie’s aura and energy.”
In his office on L.A.’s westside, Morgen is dressed in a light blue suit, turquoise tie askew, with white sneakers and striped Dr. Seuss-like socks of orange and blue. The wardrobe is a kind of homage to Bowie’s colorful Ziggy Stardust palette, says the filmmaker.
In a bookcase behind him are volumes on Bowie, and a row of decorative plates with the singer’s image from the Aladdin Sane photo session, lightning bolt of glittery red and blue slashed across his face. In another corner is Morgen’s editing station, currently dark, where he spent years of his life struggling to bring the Bowie doc to life.
To make the film, Morgen had full access to film, video, still images, paintings and other artifacts controlled by the Bowie estate. He went through everything, all the footage locked away in the Bowie archive, and all other known material of the Thin White Duke. It took two years of obsessive viewing, six days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, which he remembers as a time of “pleasure, indulgence, love. That was the most joyous two years of my career, sitting alone right here watching David, not knowing what was going to happen next.”
Early in Moonage Daydream, we follow the artist in full Ziggy splendor, his rooster mullet an unnatural shade of orange, as he walks from backstage to the microphone, with an amused voiceover lifted from ‘70s talk show host Dick Cavett: “Questions have arisen as to who is he, what is he, where did he come from? Is he a creature of a foreign power? Is he a creep, is he dangerous, is he smart, dumb, nice to his parents, real, a put-on, crazy, sane, man, woman, robot? What is this?”
With the entire visual history of Bowie swirling around in his head, Morgen sought to create a document that he imagined could be found by an alien race in some distant future, he explains, “not knowing if it’s a document of a person’s life, a fiction film, or a prophet.”
Bowie’s career is typically summed up by his 1971 song “Changes,” which observers use to describe the various guises and personas he carried through the years, beginning with Ziggy Stardust. “David would mock that,” Morgen says. “He would say, ‘I know everyone thinks my through line is ‘Ch-ch-ch-changes,’ but it’s really ‘T-t-t-transient.’”
Now 53, Morgen was barely more than a toddler during the Ziggy Stardust years, but caught up soon enough as a kid absorbing the music of Bowie’s most epic decade – a dozen mostly classic albums that stretched from 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World to 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Morgen can tell you exactly where he was sitting, and how many other fans were in the audience, when he saw D.A. Pennebaker’s 1979 documentary about the final Ziggy concert (shot in 1973).
During some of the same years Bowie was in Los Angeles recording Station to Station and other works, Morgen was growing up in the nearby suburbia of the San Fernando Valley. Bowie’s relationship with the city was fractious, and he can be heard in Moonage expressing general disgust, but he kept returning. “He goes, ‘So I moved to L.A. because I detested the people there,’ and the implication is drugs, sex, deviant to depraved behavior,” Morgen explains.
In later interviews, Bowie said he had no memory of recording any of Station to Station in L.A. By its nature, that period wasn’t as well documented as others in his life and career, other than a BBC documentary called Cracked Actor shot in 1974. Morgen uses a sequence from that film where Bowie is interviewed in the back of a limo as he rolls along the Sunset Strip at its seediest and describes what he calls a general “unease” in the city.
Meanwhile, the filmmaker was fully at home in L.A., and had an early life-changing movie-going experience in 1982 while watching the bleak rock opera Pink Floyd: The Wall, directed by Alan Parker, which Morgen saw in 8th grade. “I might be one of the few directors in this town to adamantly say one of my top five films ever made, one of the most groundbreaking films, one of the most inspiring films,” he says. “That is the most immersive film I’ve ever seen! Fucking mind-blowing! And walking into something and seeing someone reinvent how to tell a story, that was so exhilarating.”
He’s found the collision of music and film to be deeply inspiring. In 2018, he watched Bohemian Rhapsody 14 times in the first two weeks of release. “It was for the sound. I probably had my eyes closed half the time,” he explains. “The music was amazing. It is so much fun to be in a movie theater, eating popcorn, rocking out.”
Morgen has often turned to music as a subject, but his documentaries have explored a wider range of personalities and issues, including anthropologist Jane Goodall, film producer Robert Evans, O.J. Simpson and the Chicago 10. With the films Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and Moonage Daydream now behind him, the director isn’t sure when he’ll return to music.
“There’s nowhere else for me to go in the genre,” Morgen says. “I don’t believe it’s possible for me to create a more comprehensive biography than Montage of Heck. And that was partially what spurred Moonage, which was like, ‘well, let’s do a non-biography.’”
As a Bowie fan, Morgen lost interest after the massive hit album Let’s Dance, like a lot of the listeners and tastemakers who once idolized him. During the 1980s, it became common to refer to Bowie as a spent creative force, after poorly received misfires like Never Let Me Down. That meant a lot of listeners missed what Morgen now sees as a renaissance period for Bowie in the late ’90s and after.
When Bowie attended a 2007 screening for Morgen’s film Chicago 10, the rock star was not especially complimentary. The filmmaker was then asked about his favorite Bowie albums, and he retorted that he hadn’t been much interested in anything since 1983. “Touché,” Bowie responded.
“I feel awful because I was just part of the chorus,” says Morgen, who now considers later albums like Outside and Earthling among his favorites. “I was there when the world dismissed him. And how crazy is it to look back at that time and go, ‘Wait, there was a moment where we all were done with David Bowie?’ It was so wrong.”
His new appreciation for the full Bowie catalog can be seen and heard in Moonage Daydream, which opens with evocative music video footage of the moonscape from Blackstar’s title song, Major Tom now a skeleton in a spacesuit collapsed on the surface, and a montage of images and sounds that includes the song “Hallo Spaceboy.” The frantic latter-day track is mingled with Bowie’s first hit, the career-defining “Space Oddity.” Morgen was leveling the field, spotlighting overlooked music alongside the accepted ‘70s classics.
“At that point I just assumed it was like, okay, if you don’t like ‘Hallo Spaceboy,’ then you should just get the fuck out of here. This is not for you,” Morgen says. “This isn’t going to be the Aladdin Sane movie. This is not the character movie.”
He has noted that the documentaries David Bowie: Five Years (2013) and David Bowie: The Last Five Years (2017), both directed by Francis Whately, skillfully captured the biographic details for posterity. That, in a sense, freed Morgen to follow Bowie deeper into the spectral and mysterious, focused more on art and ideas than accolades and chart action, to create an immersive film that he describes more as an “experience” than a traditional documentary.
Morgen is fully capable of a sober, enlightening music doc, as he did a decade ago on the Rolling Stones with the well-received Crossfire Hurricane. But since arriving as a filmmaker in 1989, his goal has been to push the boundaries of non-fiction film, to break the Wikipedia mold visually and thematically. His alternately bleak and celebratory Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck was a state-of-the-art doc for 2015, going deep into the Nirvana leader’s cache of journals, cassette recordings and home video, bringing it further to life through animation and other effects.
That film was created with the knowledge of a built-in tragic ending, in cooperation with the subject’s daughter, Frances Cobain, a co-executive producer on the doc. “Frances obviously wanted me to not make a Saint Kurt film,” Morgen says. “I’m still a bit traumatized by the ending of Montage of Heck, which was: cut to black. Not a lot of smiles on the audience’s face at that point.”
In Moonage Daydream, he also had a subject whose death weighed on him, particularly since Bowie released an acclaimed final album, Blackstar, that explored these themes of mortality. It was released just two days before his death in January 2016, accompanied by two enigmatic music videos that presented a startlingly older Bowie, facing the camera with some of his most moving music, as if to say farewell.
“Who does that at the end of their career?” says Morgen. “I don’t know of a better exit. I mean, it is almost like a literal mic drop.”