'Moonage Daydream': Brett Morgen Presents The David Bowie Experience
By Tom White
Telling the story of an artist is a daunting endeavor, one that, in the right hands, transcends chronology and testimonials from contemporaries and critics to center the life, work and interiority of the artist themselves. The creative process is so singular, arcane and mystical that it takes an equally bold artist to tackle their protagonist. The best documentaries that have accomplished this, in my opinion—Tupac Resurrection (Lauren Lazin), Judy Garland: By Myself (Susan Lacy), Listen to Me, Marlon (Stevan Riley), I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck)—defer to the artists, who, in their words, reveal their demons, their passions, their sensibilities, their fears.
Filmmaker Brett Morgen has devoted a significant part of his oeuvre to exploring the life and work of artists, among them Cobain: Montage of Heck (Kurt Cobain; 2015); Crossfire Hurricane (The Rolling Stones; 2012) and The Kid Stays in the Picture (Robert Evans; 2002, directed with Nanette Burstein). Telling these stories with an abundance of visual and aural footage from both personal vaults and archival houses, Morgen delivered dense portraits of complicated and consequential humans.
Over the past seven years, Morgen has grappled with one of the most transformational and transformative artists in popular culture: David Bowie. The subject of several documentaries and books, as well as a highly regarded exhibition, Bowie, following his passing in 2016, attained an iconic echelon that transcended the numerous characters and personae he assumed throughout his luminous career.
How do you catch a star and pin him down? Moonage Daydream, set for a September 16th theatrical release through NEON, is a kaleidoscopic escapade through the many worlds of David Bowie, and is actually Morgen’s second venture into, as he dubs it, “The David Bowie Experience.” His first, in 2007, was exploratory, coming at the heels of his groundbreaking animated documentary Chicago 10. At the time, neither Morgen nor Bowie were ready to move forward. But several films later, and with Bowie’s death spurring a deeper appreciation for the artist, Morgen could now take on the most ambitious project of his career—one whose process was disrupted by a massive heart attack that nearly killed him, but that would also take on a tectonic shift in his worldview and his creative journey.
Documentary spoke with Morgen by Zoom following the UK premiere of Moonage Daydream at Sheffield Doc/Fest. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: I want to go back to 2007 when you first pitched David Bowie about a project. What did he mean to you back then, and what kind of film did you want to make about him?
BRETT MORGEN: In 2007, David was very much a figure from my youth. I had stopped listening to him, probably around Let's Dance, but the impact he had on me as a teenager was as profound as any artist has had on me at any point in my life. When I was approached in 2007 to pitch to David, I was listening to Hunky Dory, but I wasn't that engaged with him.
They had a very interesting proposition, which was, “David doesn't want to make a documentary, but we want a catalog film that's nonfiction. Can you come up with something?” I wasn't driven by my own passion to do a film at the time, but the one thing about David that I understood and I built the pitch around was the idea of change and transitions and what happens when you don't evolve.
In short, I presented a triptych. Part one was going to envision David today, in modern-day Berlin, and the premise was, He had never put out another album after Ziggy, and he had spent his whole career as a one-hit wonder, singing the same set night after night.
A second segment related to David and I going to Southeast Asia together to have a press conference at the airport in Tokyo, where we would show a five-minute clip of a documentary we were going to premiere. But this would be the type of documentary David would have never wanted to have participated in: a very gossipy, celebrity-based talking-head documentary. And then David would go around Southeast Asia and China because of his own interests, kabuki and Chinese opera, visit some shows, which would then be like [the Japanese author Yukio] Mishima, where every scene is some expression of his life.
The bottom line was, He was not healthy enough at the time to embark on that film, and I was not mature enough at that point in my career to approach a David Bowie film.
D: Fast-forward to 2016 after he had passed—and I’m going to spotlight Montage of Heck and Crossfire Hurricane as antecedents to Moonage Daydream—how had you grown in appreciation of him? When you approached his manager again, what did you envision this time?
BM: I would say that I don't think of Crossfire as a companion to this film. I think of The Kid Stays in the Picture, Montage of Heck and Moonage Daydream as very much aligned.
So, I vividly remember when I first heard Black Star; it shook me to my core. It was such a profound piece of art. I don't know if anyone has ever returned to form in such a grandiose way.
I was at a screening of Montage of Heck at South by Southwest, attended by David Fricke from Rolling Stone. When it was over, he said to me, “I've seen Nirvana 12 times and that's about as close as anyone will ever get to experiencing Nirvana.”
Something clicked in that moment, and I thought that most of my explorations in nonfiction had been about trying to create experiences based upon the archives of my subjects. I'd like to think—and this started with The Kid Stays in the Picture—that the films are not so much about the subjects as they are designed to be the personification of the subjects.
My approach to nonfiction has always been grounded in a cinematic pursuit. There's a wealth of information about what I can provide and present in a theatrical environment. And part of that is because of my deep love of surround sound and immersive sound design. So in 2015, I created a format whose working title was going to be The IMAX Music Experience. And the premise of IME was that there were certain artists who are so well known that we don't need to go to a cinema to explore their Wikipedia entry. We can go to a cinema to just experience them.
I don't even know if I would call that format documentary. It's not fiction. It's closer to Pink Floyd Laserium or something—like an audiovisual immersive experience. At the time I thought that these films couldn't exceed 40 minutes because that's about as far as anyone can go without a narrative. I worked out an arrangement with BMG. Everyone seemed on board with this idea.
The plan was to do one a year. I thought I was set for the next 15 years of my life. Little did I know, it takes seven years to make one! I hadn’t thought through the machinations of how these films would actually work. With 10 minutes without a narrative focus, I don't care how good the music is, if you're staring at a wall with another couple hundred people, you start to get uncomfortable and awkward. So, that became a burden down the road for me. But I was excited and eager, and we started speaking to bands. And then Bowie passed.
It’s hard to articulate why Bowie's passing at that moment, when I had not been an active listener for so many years, had as profound an impact as it did. It might have been the combination of, Here was my childhood hero and he's gone too soon, and there's a lot of emotion. But more than anything, a lot of people started to take a deep dive into Bowie.
And I realized that he was the perfect artist for this sort of exploration. At that point, I hadn't done a deep dive into his history and his biography, so I had no idea how tailor-made he would be for this format. I reached out to his manager, Bill Zysblat, who is now his executor, who was in that initial meeting with David.
I explained to him what I was interested in and he said, “Most people don’t know this, but David saved and collected everything, and for the last 25 years he's been building an archive. But he never wanted to do a kind of traditional documentary. And he on occasion would say things like, ‘Bill, what are we going to do with all this material?’”
And so I show up with this idea that I don't need anything other than material, and I'm not going to interview anyone. I just want the David Bowie Experience. Bill said, “This sounds great. It's a little too early. Come back next year.” So I spent that year doing more academic research into Bowie. We started the project in earnest in 2017, where it was full-blown every day at that point. So, interestingly enough, the film was sort of conceived before the subject.
D: With Montage of Heck and Moonage Daydream, you’re dealing with artists who are not here in corpus but certainly here in heart, mind and soul and in their work. How advantageous is that for you to engage in that kind of project format, versus The Kid Stays in the Picture and Crossfire Hurricane?
BM: There are advantages and disadvantages in both. It was challenging as Bob Evans wanted to control his narrative, he knew that the movie was being told with him talking off camera. And I think in his mind he thought if he didn't put it on the audio, we couldn't use it, and that would limit what areas we could explore in the film.
For example, Bob never wanted to talk about how promiscuous he might have been. But it was such a part of Bob's legend at that point. And so, there's a section of the film where Bob says, “I never go out. I stay home every night.” And then some montage of him out and about. That was important because it allowed us to present a dishonest narrator and to create friction.
But the flipside of that was, I had moved into Bob's house for six months before I wrote the script for The Kid Stays in the Picture. I knew I was doing an archival film; I didn't need to be with him. But I lived with him for six months because I wanted to create a film that would appear as if he were directing it.
It's method directing. I needed to know how he walked, talked, woke up, ate—none of which was going to go in the film, but all of which would help provide me with a deeper, more complex picture of him. So there's a massive advantage to having a live subject for those purposes.
My films, up to Montage of Heck, had been based on primary source materials. That doesn't provide you with a picture of who the person really is. It presents you with a picture of the filtered media. Now, on occasion, what we look for are those moments that weren't produced by filtered media.
So, for example, in Montage of Heck, the 50 hours of Kurt sitting around watching television, where he just was letting the boombox go, were probably far more relevant and illuminating to me than any interview I ever found with him, in terms of trying to get a sense of his mannerisms and likes and dislikes and interests. Same thing with Bowie. My favorite piece of media I unearthed was a three-hour video piece he did in ’74 on half-inch reel-to-reel video, where he was creating video art.
But it wasn't what he was shooting that I found so interesting; it was the audio that was happening off camera. Because every time the camera turned on and off, there would be a different scene happening. And sometimes the camera would turn on, and I would hear Stravinsky. And David mumbling to himself. And then it would just cut and there would be some people coming through a door. And it's John Lennon.
And I knew that what I was accessing in that moment was completely unfiltered and, like Kurt, what enchanted me more than anything was the idea of this person creating by themselves for the purpose of creation. While Kurt and David are quite different, they both worked across different mediums, and those explorations came back to inform their main interest in music.
D: What I found so valuable in your film was the visual and audio footage of him talking about his process, his spirituality, his quest. And being so transparent and forthcoming about it—which is not the case with many artists. Talk about how those interviews with Bowie served as building blocks as you structured this film.
BM: One of the things that I came to admire about David was that he viewed every moment as an opportunity for an exchange. And even if he was doing an interview with an MTV journalist in the mid-’80s, before the cameras were running, he would talk to them about what books they've been reading. There was always, Let's make that moment as rich as possible. He would gravitate toward subjects like cybernetics or spirituality or mortality in his interviews.
But he's an intellectual and those subjects engaged him. He was very consistent throughout his life about the subjects. He would return to them. And he was very passionate about chaos theory and fragmentation back in the early ’70s. And he was as excited talking about it in the late ’90s as the world that he described in ’71 started to come into existence.
When I was finishing work on Jane in January 2017, I had a heart attack. I had flatlined and had to be resuscitated and was in a coma for a week.
I have to bring that up in context for you when asking me about David's soulful musings in the film. Because what happened when I began my recovery was, I started listening to Bowie’s interviews. And for someone who had just had a near-death experience, listening to something like—I'm quoting David now—“The moment you realized you've lived more days than you have in front of you is the moment you can really begin to live your life.”
In the state of mind I was in, it was something I needed to hear. It was something I needed to experience. And so, just naturally, I do think that all art is biographical. If we're making a biography of someone, inherently it's a reflection of you more than the person you're depicting.
My Bowie film happened as a result of the heart attack. That's where my head was. So if I had made this film in 2015, or 2007, I possibly would have gravitated to some of these things, but certainly not the way that I approached it. I started to ask myself, What was the message that if I died on that day, what would my kids remember of me?
And that was daunting. And then there was David. And David was essentially so much more profound and a sage than I can be, am, or was. And I realized that David's message was the message that I wanted to relate to my children. If nothing else, this film would be in two-and-a-half hours the place where my kids, if they're ever lost or confused or what advice do they seek from Dad, they can seek it in the film. And that was obviously something going back to 2015: I never anticipated that I would end up making a film that would be a guide to how to live a fulfilled life in the 21st century.
D: I have some questions about structure. I appreciated the fact that you opened and closed with a scene from the 1960 documentary Universe, since space was one of Bowie’s many inspirations, and it bracketed his artistic career, from “Space Oddity” to “Black Star.” As you presented the project to Bill Zysblat, you did not want this to be a conventional documentary; you wanted it to be a theatrical cinematic experience. Nevertheless, there is a necessary linearity when you are talking about the evolution of an artist; there has to be that kind of structuring, while still staying true to your artistic vision. Talk about the challenges of recognizing the necessity of inculcating how he evolved as an artist through his own words, and your artistic intentions of making this a David Bowie Experience.
BM: Well, I think this film, more than any film I've worked on, led me to further my belief that there are no absolutes in art, and that I have generally applied a very rigorous aesthetic to my films before I begin editing. Every film I've done has been written before I've gone into the editing room, and the edits don't deviate much from the scripts.
So, after looking at footage for two years and telling my investors that I was going to do this crazy Laserium-like experience, I sat down to write an experience—only to discover that I didn’t know how. I am very linear in my thinking. Jane, Montage of Heck and The Kid Stays in the Picture are very much scripted like dramatic films, with cause-and-effect narratives and three acts.
With Moonage Daydream, I struggled mightily for eight months. I had a tremendous amount of self-doubt. I had exhausted most of our budget by that point before I had started editing, just getting all of this material ingested. And I didn't know how to do it.
So, I tried. I cut that first scene of the space scene very early on; it is like a template of what the film should be, but I didn't know how to go anywhere from there. I realized that the film was going to require more structure. And as I went through the materials, I was able to establish a through line of action related to transience and transcendence, or some variation thereof.
Essentially, David says point blank, “Chaos and fragmentation are my through line.” And I formed a very loose interpretation of that so that I go, OK, this through line kind of connects a lot of elements that helped define David. The cut-up process that he borrowed from William Burroughs is involved in that. One can argue that his belief in no absolutes and his ability to stay in the now, in the moment—I had falsely thought that David created these different characters that defined him, and as you notice in the film, it's not about characters.
I started to see David's life and career as more like a series of movements, like Picasso—these periods where you would just see these dramatic shifts. Once I landed on this idea of transience as the through line, and it was not going to be biographical, per se, I was still stuck. I pulled a trick out of Bowie's book, which is, Get out of your own environment.
So, with that in mind, I took a train trip from LA and was like, I'm not coming back until I break this. And 24 hours later I had the script that the film is based on. And the way I arrived there was, I decided to play a game. And I said, OK, let's pick three songs from each album that relate to these themes and see what that looks like. And I was like, Oh, wow, that could be the movie. And it covers the whole career. It doesn't just lean towards the hits. And then it became a question of reorganizing and restructuring that playlist and using that as the foundational blueprint for the film. And that inherently was driving me towards a more linear path.
But there was no way this was going to be two-and-a-half hours of what my original 40-minute idea would be. I guess the challenge then became, There is this narrative that's really about his spiritual and creative journey through life, and one of the ideas going into the film was, I didn't want to do a biography on him. But I did recognize at a point that when someone's stock and trade is isolation and alienation, you can only take so much of someone saying that before you go, What's behind this?
I recognized I would be doing a disservice to the viewer, to the audience, to myself, and to David, by being entirely dogmatic about how I was approaching this, and I felt a great need to peel back the onion for a moment. When I did, the idea was that he would speak about his family in a way that was broad enough to invite projection. And this is very much one of the more interesting parts of the film that mirrors David, which is, David Bowie's lyrics are often rather elusive, often because he's using the cut-up process.
Bowie talked a lot and created art that was designed to invite the viewer to project whatever it is they wanted onto the screen. He was purposely vague and mercurial and hard to pin down—not as a person, but in his art. And I like to say, Bowie is best experienced, not defined.
Moonage Daydream was designed to be a film about you, not David Bowie, attempting to use the techniques that Bowie employed, and to make a film that's more felt than learned.
The idea was that it wasn't so much about humanizing David but as inviting the audience, as one does with every film. To project themselves, project their own story. My hope was that people would be meditating on their own lives throughout the film. And they can leave the theater thinking about their lives, not David's life. And the hope was that what he's talking about would resonate with almost anyone, because it isn't specific to the music industry or even to the creative process. This is about life. There are words of wisdom that emanate from David that are so applicable to enhancing our day-to-day living.
D: There is a quote from Bowie where he discusses being a Buddhist on a Tuesday and a Nietzschean on a Friday. And the film opens with Bowie quoting Nietzsche. I’ve been contemplating that polarity ever since. That to me is a key to understanding Bowie and his exploration—but I guess that’s my film, as you’re implying.
BM: I think it's this idea of there are no absolutes, and you take pieces of these different religions and different artists and you mash them up. There is an element of postmodernism to it or post-postmodernism. The original quote that opens the film, it's part of a series of interviews David did in which he would talk about Nietzsche, Einstein, Freud and James Joyce, all deconstructing our belief system at the same moment at the beginning of the 20th century.
The film is many things. It's about the 20th century. It's about the move from analog to digital. One of the things that is very prescient is that it doesn't feel like we're hearing someone giving us life advice that's not applicable to the world we're living in. This was a person who very much, as he says in the film, was creating the 21st century in 1970.
And these ideas of fragmentation, which have obviously just blossomed a million times over with the advances in digital and the Internet—he was aware of it. And one of the things that I found so helpful from him is that if we live in a chaotic world and you accept chaos, you're kind of like bamboo. You're not going to be cracked. You just move and accept it.
This is what's so exciting about Bowie: He introduces us to a world, and as a kid I would go chase his influences when he would reference something.
And so, again, in trying to create a film that aspires to provide some of the experience of David, what does that look and feel like? It should be mysterious. There is a part of the language of the film where I was incorporating visual cues to his influences and inspirations. I don't explain them. I don't say what they are. They're just there. If you know them, it’s like a Rorschach test. And you can derive whatever extra meaning you can from seeing Kenneth Anger juxtaposed with something else. But if you don't know them, that's fine, too.
D: How has the experience of creating Moonage Daydream transformed you as an artist, and what do you see as your pathway going forward?
BM: Oh, it's changed everything. It's changed the direction of my career, and what I'm going to do next. I'm going back to cinéma vérité. That never would've happened on its own. That was a direct response to David, and me realizing that I had been in the same environment for 20 years and that I needed to change my environment, the way I approach work so I can grow and learn more through these experiences.
I feel like when I started the film I was a bit of a man-child, and I believe that I grew up. And it was probably slightly inevitable due to the heart attack and having to make some changes in my life. But it was definitely spurred on by David. I also feel as an artist, David taught me something. And as I mentioned earlier, I am a purist with aesthetics.
And there's something very liberating to understanding that there is no absolute in art, that there are no mistakes; there are just happy accidents. I think the experience of the film has really woken me up in so many ways. It’s been an absolute blessing.
Tom White is Editor of Documentary magazine.