American filmmaker Brett Morgen, 53, is no stranger to making music documentaries. But even after working on films about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and the Rolling Stones, nothing prepared him for his latest, Moonage Daydream – a film about iconic British artist David Bowie. After doing two years of academic research on the musician, he was granted unprecedented access by Bowie’s estate to search through the musician’s extensive personal archives. It took another two years of sifting through before editing began.
The resulting film is an immersive journey into the creative mind of Bowie, rather than a factual blow-by-blow account of his life. It’s told entirely using the voice of late musician, using archival footage from interviews and films. There are previously unseen performances and concert clips, as well as vignettes of some of Bowie’s rarely showcased work in the wider artistic fields of art, dance, television and film.
Those expecting documentary talking heads will be disappointed (there are none) and this isn’t a film that delves into his famous friendships with the likes of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop either. Instead, it’s a 360-degree exploration of the mind of one of the most famous and singular musicians of all time – and it’s genuinely stunning.
And it was a “nightmare”, says Morgen; harder than anything he’s done before. Most of the project was completed in isolation too, not out of choice but out of necessity due to huge financial costs and the pandemic. While Bowie often thrived creating in isolation, Morgen felt the opposite.
“I guess the difference between Bowie and me is that I didn’t really have fun,” he smiles. “I felt kind of tortured and traumatised by having to do this by myself. I felt I was in over my head. I definitely had a lot of panic attacks and breakdowns and I just [thought] ‘when is this ever going to end?’ I enjoyed the writing, and I enjoyed the challenge, but it was traumatic.”
Sound engineer Paul Massey, 64, who mixed all the music and dialogue for the film, says nothing about his previous films – including his Oscar-winning work on the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody – prepared him for the challenges of Moonage Daydream, either. Like Morgen, he too struggled.
“I had no idea about what I was getting myself into,” he laughs. “The film was so complex. I’d never seen a film like this to be honest… Brett wanted this to be a theme park ride.”
The film immerses you, as far as possible, in the mind and music of Bowie, through extensive footage, sound and evocative images of Bowie’s art, rather than presenting you with reams of factual information.
“I’ve been exploring non-fiction for a couple of decades now, and I realise that the thing I’m interested in most is creating experiences,” Morgen says. “There are 36 books about Bowie; there have been several films about Bowie. Most people know the facts but I wanted to just kind of lean into the ethereal, the mystery and the experience of Bowie… Facts have never been my thing. I don’t think facts reveal the truth. I think the truth is often much more impressionistic and I think of my films more as mythologies than documentaries.”
The film is the first authorised biography of Bowie since his death. Did omitting some of the facts about Bowie’s life (there’s nothing, for example, on allegations that he slept with teenage girls, and little on his controversial comments regarding fascism in the 1970s) come down to estate control? Morgen says he had free reign from start to finish.
“One of the first things they said to me was that David is not here to approve or authorise this film. So this is never going to be Bowie on Bowie, it’s going to be Brett on Bowie.” He says he went to one of Bowie’s closest confidents and executors a couple of times during the process to ask him if he should include something. He got a blunt reply.
“He would look at me and go, ‘that’s your problem!’ They specifically wanted no involvement… it was my interpretation. It was incredibly courageous because they provided me with the final cut. I feel that they viewed it as an artistic endeavour.”
Both Morgen and Massey were Bowie fans already. Massey, who was a teenager in the late Sixties and early Seventies, says he couldn’t believe the footage he saw when he started work on the film. “It was phenomenal”, he says. “I was so thrilled to get my hands on these multi-tracks and do these completely new mixes on well-established iconic songs. And then seeing the unseen footage of the concert material and other interviews that I’d never seen.
“It was like opening up a magic box, peering in and getting this behind-the-scenes look at large pieces of his life that I wasn’t aware of at all. It was a huge joy to get the original multi-track recordings of these live concerts and be able to just listen to them. His vocal was unbelievable. I can see why he never really did [multiple] takes of songs. His performance was his performance and that was that: it was so commanding.”
Massey says he felt a heavy burden of responsibility when it came to handling the tracks. “My initial excitement of getting the multi tracks, of remixing everything was huge… then I realised the responsibility was also huge because these iconic songs are so well known, if I messed up the mixes, I was going to get very, very criticised. I really hope it gets accepted.”
Morgen felt a similar responsibility when it came to handling some of the most personal footage of Bowie in the film, like when he speaks about his difficult relationship with his mother and his devotion to his half-brother, Terry. Bowie’s mother largely disowned him, while Terry was institutionalised after being diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man. Bowie can be seen exploring the parallels between the way his own mind wandered and that of his brother. Of his mother, there is one clip where a teary Bowie says: “I think she pretends I’m not hers… we’re not that close”: it’s one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film.
“When you see that clip, it’s so intimate,” Morgen says, noting that it was a rare moment where Bowie opened-up about his family in a public situation. “When I did show the film to David’s closest confidents, the only thing that made them a little uncomfortable was the family stuff because they knew that David was very private and rarely talked about this stuff.” Morgen pointed out that Bowie had discussed this in a very public setting and felt it should therefore be included.
“I needed to remind them that while it seemed very intimate and personal, this is a public statement on a television talk show,” he continues. “I also think for me, the purpose of this [clip] was to make the spaceman, the alien, more relatable. He’s not really telling us much detail about his parents, he’s just saying mum and dad didn’t have love in the house. I experienced that and I’m sure half the audience has experienced that. Keeping it broad also invites the audience to project and fill in the blanks, and so ultimately you’re learning, you’re asking yourselves questions about your own life.”
Morgen ended up doing that himself when he suffered a heart attack mid-way through the project. A good part of the film explores Bowie saying how short a time we have on earth – something that’s more poignant in in the context of Bowie’s untimely passing from cancer in 2016.
Morgen says clips like this made him reflect on his own mortality. “My health did not limit my ability to work. What it did was make me receptive to certain messaging that otherwise might not have resonated with me,” he says. “When you have a near-death experience and you wake up from that and [you hear Bowie] saying you’ve lived more years than you have in front of you, [that’s] the moment you can really start living. That really is profound and resonant... Bowie kind of came to me at the perfect time when I needed it most.”
He did meet Bowie, years ago, he tells me, and remembers how their meeting taught him to be fearless in his pursuit of art. “The thing that really stays with me is how present he was,” he says. “He locked and engaged every second we were in the room. There were no distractions, there was nobody, he was just there. I think that’s how he kind of approached life, that he was present, that he was trying to absorb and engage at all times. In a culture where so many of us find comfort in shutting down, watching television, going to the same restaurants all the time, sleeping in our own beds, being comfortable – David understood there’s very little growth from places of comfort and was willing to put it all on the line to pursue his creative interests.”
The documentary also feels timely in the way it speaks to Generation Z, especially via Bowie’s thoughts on gender fluidity, sexuality and the power of challenging the status quo in search of the self. One scene shows Bowie challenging an interviewer who sarcastically asks him if he’s wearing male shoes, female shoes or bisexual shoes. “No silly, they’re shoe shoes,” Bowie retorts.
“How Bowie was addressing his sexual orientation felt entirely contemporary and modern,” Morgen says. “It’s almost impossible to try to explain to a young audience just how bold and courageous that was, to get on television and publicly declare that… He taught us it was OK to be different.”
What does Morgen want people to take away from the film? “I think David’s generosity and his philosophy towards making the most of every day,” he says. “It was not something I came into this film thinking of in association with Bowie… the way he’s able to articulate his view of day-to-day living is really exceptional, unique and inspiring.”
For Massey, he hopes people see the true extent of Bowie’s career achievements or the “sum total of everything he did.” He continues: “To go behind the curtain and see some of the inner-workings of David’s life that we weren’t aware of is wonderful and it’s a great way to revisit all of that iconic music we know and love.”
“Not a lot of artists own their individuality the way that Bowie did,” Massey adds. “We can all learn something from him.”
Moonage Daydream is released on Friday