Put your laser toward my head.
Director Brett Morgen talks about “Moonage Daydream,” a David Bowie freakshow documentary that isn’t really a documentary.
In the hours leading up to the global release of Moonage Daydream, the filmmaker Brett Morgen’s latest documentary on the music and philosophy of David Bowie, he will tell you that it is one of his best days ever.
If you ask him why, he will give you a 10-minute explanation that is chock-full of personal information and unanticipated turns. He’ll tell you about having a speech impediment that was so severe that it prohibited him from speaking until he was five years old and left him incomprehensible until he was sixteen growing up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley in the 1970s and ’80s. He’ll tell you about how going to the cinema was his safe haven and how he would sneak away to the restroom in between showings to see the same movies over and over again. He will tell you about the eighth-grade English teacher at the private Crossroads School who also worked part-time at the American Film Institute and showed his middle school students the same movies and gave the same lectures as he did his film students. In this course, Morgen discovered that a film may be anything thanks to French New Wave cinema.
He’ll tell you about attending Hampshire College in the late 1980s and how, despite having no genuine interest in the topic, he took a class on ethnographic documentaries to satisfy an academic requirement. He decided he’d just sit in the back of the class and get cooked. It was instructed by an anthropologist who frequently brought up the definition of a documentary and how the form relates to the truth. Morgen grew more attentive to the lesson. He was especially enamoured by the 1970 montage of African tribe footage, The Nuer, directed by Hilary Harris and Robert Gardner. Documentary filmmakers were becoming more concerned with objectivity in the 1980s, but Morgen claimed in a paper that a wholly impressionistic portrayal might offer him a much better feel of a film’s subjects than any facts could. Even though there weren’t any theatrical nonfiction films being made at the time, that is when he realised he was interested in doing such.
The Kid Stays in the Picture, the O.J. Simpson police chase, Crossfire Hurricane, the Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain, Cobain: Montage of Heck, and Jane Goodall are just a few of the projects he’s worked on throughout the years, but he won’t discuss them with you (Jane). Instead, he will “cut to the chase” and express his thoughts on Moonage Daydream’s impending publication. It will be available day and date in IMAX theatres around the world, from Kyiv to Singapore to Australia to Bolivia to Peru, he claims. They will watch my experiential video, which was largely produced according to my specifications, not my watered-down version of anything. I finally feel like I’ve accomplished my career aim of producing and creating a theatrical event today.
He’ll explain everything to you over Zoom while smoking a vaporizer, donning a subtly rumpled suit, and wearing his sunglasses indoors.
Following Bowie’s passing in 2016 at the age of 69, Morgen is the first filmmaker to have access to his massive archives. The entire collection was digitised in one year, and Morgen went through it in another two. The now 53-year-old Morgen had a heart attack while working on the movie, flatlined, and spent a week in a coma. He had to do the editing on his laptop because he couldn’t afford to hire a permanent editor. On the sound mix, he worked for a full year. He experienced the pandemic.
A chronological account of David Jones’ transformation into the versatile, constantly-evolving international superstar David Bowie is not provided in Moonage Daydream. It’s short on biographical details but long on emotions. Bowie’s five-decade career is showcased in breathtaking live footage, and the film challenges you to view him in fresh light.
As Morgen puts it, “Bowie is what Bowie is.” If you want to go there, it’s a little difficult and strange. Whatever you choose to invest in Bowie is acceptable. You can either focus on deciphering Bowie’s lyrics or you can simply listen. That pretty of describes the movie.
How did your connection to David Bowie begin?
In the first month of seventh grade, I think, was when I first started dating Bowie. At my friend’s place, Scary Monsters was brought out. Of course, there was the somewhat distinctive album cover. Additionally, there was the “Ashes to Ashes” video, which was… wow. My dad was a staunch conservative. At Millikan Middle School [in Sherman Oaks, California], he taught physical education. [My parents] had absolutely no interest in the arts. I wasn’t exposed to culture by them. The day after I first heard Bowie, I purchased Changesonebowie. I started crafting my own culture at that point.
He entered my life just as I was starting to go through puberty and was starting to get a little more self-aware and lonely. And here’s this guy saying, “You’re not alone,” in the style of David Bowie. Our differences don’t make us less than. Bowie was teaching this to me: these are our strengths.
Once the Velvet Underground was located, the Clash followed, followed by Black Flag, before leading to the SST scene with the Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü. That served as the foundation. It would have been more than plenty if that were all there was to it.
Why did you think that this subject matter was best told in a nonlinear or experiential manner?
Bowie, that’s why. Bowie doesn’t perform rhymes for children that have a very specific direction in their lyrics. Although the meanings we derive from songs will be completely different, neither of them will bring us any closer to David Jones. They will advance our comprehension of ourselves, but that was the intention.
The one thing that unites all of my movies is that they are all intended to personify the subject rather than to be about it. to be a subject’s cinematic extraction. similar to wine. To extract the juice, I’m squeezing the grape. Wikipedia is the grape’s skin, therefore ignore all the facts and get rid of everything that may be found elsewhere. If I were to write a thorough biography of David Jones, I wouldn’t do it as a motion picture. If I were to write it, I would.
So what experiences does film provide for us? Thankfully, Bowie is one of the few musicians who can fit this orientation. I mean, guy, Behind the Music was over. Although Behind the Music was fantastic, if you make a music documentary 20 years later and follow a similar path, you are not pushing yourself.
Why did you choose to present this tale only in Bowie’s voice?
That’s how I always act; it’s who I am.
You conducted interviews with others in Montage of Heck.
The exception to the norm is Montage of Heck. I avoid doing on-camera interviews because I don’t want to squander the space. I prefer stories told with images and sound. It was decided not to include any interviews in [Montage of Heck]. Kurt would be the sole participant. Yet it was too restrictive. I needed background. As a result, I really chopped the movie and made spaces for them to enter and converse.
I’d like to hear it directly from the artists than from someone else. Someone talking about someone they didn’t know in a movie theatre is something I can’t tolerate. There is a place and time for it. And I just adore the Bee Gees movie. Let’s just state the obvious. I’m not some arrogant academic. I absolutely cried when I saw the Bee Gees movie while I was filming Moonage because I love it so much. I sobbed because I thought, “Why can’t I do it this way?” Simply put, this looks lot less stressful. My health is terrible, and I’m having a really difficult time giving birth to this Bowie movie as I sit here tearing out my hair. But wow, this is one of those situations when there isn’t even an option. I am unable to accomplish that.
Do the archived interviews influence the plot when you’re writing a narrative utilising only the subject’s voice, or do you already have a story in mind and are just looking for the pieces to fit together?
Before I screen the archival material, I have no preconceived notions. To determine how to utilise the content and my possibilities, I must first look about. What plot arcs and storylines are available to me? With Bowie, it was immediately clear. It was disorganised, fragmented, and fleeting. We deal with a number of things, but those three issues have always been present, with the exception of the 1980s, when it became stagnant, which may be part of the story in that throughline.
I spent years reading through every item of media (about Bowie), during which time I did no writing at all but instead took in and assessed everything. As soon as I was done, it was quite evident to me what the themes and throughline were. Simply put, I wasn’t sure how to write it. I was unaware of what was happening at any given time. I had a fair understanding of the concepts the movie would cover and how they would be connected, even if I had no idea what would happen in the fifth scene. I tried to compose the script for eight months. For comparison, Jane was written in three or four days. Montage of Heck was likely completed in a single day.
After two years of viewing [the material], I only had a week available in my schedule to create the script for [Moonage Daydream], which was definitely a mistake. Three weeks were probably spent screening Montage. I enter my office to begin drafting the document but am at a loss for how to go. I have no idea how to compose an experience; I am incapable of writing a script. It was probably in 2018; at this point, the situation has been ongoing for three years, no one has reported anything, and I am at a loss on what to do. I was the wrong candidate for the position. That hit me hard. I would have removed myself if I had the money. I would have employed a different person and continued working as a producer. However, I had to overcome it.
Every day I would report to work and write, but I would omit the script. I’d discuss fragmentation and chaos theory in my writing. I’d write on the dismantling of our worldview at the turn of the century, along with Joyce, Einstein, and Nietzsche. Aside from the screenplay, I would write about anything. I lacked any executives. I was only under my own pressure. Eight months later, I drive to LAX’s Terminal 1 for Southwest Airlines one day. I board a plane for Albuquerque. I take a cab to the railway station and make the decision to ride the trains until this thing is broken.
That’s not entirely random, though. That is adhering to David’s methods and approaches. Step away from your comfort zone. He was accurate. In [the office], I was oppressed. Additionally, he found a lot of inspiration while travelling. It spilled out of me the moment I boarded the train and it left the station. Simply poured. The playlist I had just put together, which would serve as the basis for the script, was being played back in my cabin as I listened to it. At that time, I understood the story.
One thing I observed about David Bowie in some of the interviews you utilised and that I’ve read is how humble and understated he is about his accomplishments. Where do you suppose that habit originated from given that he had lofty goals for both himself and his art?
His painting skills weren’t the best. Not the best actor, he was. He wasn’t a really good dancer. I’m a fairly good writer, he declares in the film.
But don’t you believe he had incredible talent?
He was, in my opinion, the finest artist of our time. But his courage is something I appreciate. He might not be the world’s greatest actor, but he’s putting himself out there for the learning opportunity. He might discover something in that area that would inspire him to return to his chosen line of work. He was always slipping into another area.
I would ask you to use the same adjective you would use to describe Magellan or Neil Armstrong when describing David Bowie or David Jones. He was an adventurer and an explorer, and it was risky. Nearly every time he released an album, he was willing to risk his career, his safety, and his fan base in order to fulfil his personal creative itch. However indulgent that may sound, art is indulgent.
It isn’t even that; it is the audacity and the fortitude. We cling to our success and wealth. No one wants to abandon that. Giving people what they want keeps them around since no one wants to see their numbers decline, and David didn’t want to do that. He didn’t change as a result of that.
In Los Angeles, Eric Ducker works as an editor and writer. For the sake of clarity, this interview has been trimmed and shortened.