I was on my way to see Confess Fletch, the recent reboot of the investigative reporter series starring Jon Hamm, at the CGV on Van Ness here in San Francisco a couple of weeks back when I got distracted by this sudden bombast. A tremendous wave of Bowie clamor, live concert explosion, thundering at high 50,000-seat concert stadium-type frequency levels in the theater down the hall.
Listen, I remember the Beyonce/Jay-Z concert at AT&T Park in 2014, where it was so loud that the entire city heard it, whether they wanted to or not. The San Francisco Giants had to apologize to all of the city’s residents for the not-intentional free show.
So hearing “keep your electric eye on me, babe,” with savage guitars and plundering bass lines wrapped around the arrangement, pumping through the entire building—no strings, as in the classic rock version—these ax chops, that slice Bowie’s vocal tics of “Freak out…Far Out.”
I was sold, instantaneously, on whatever director Brett Morgen had cooking.
Moonage Daydream—a two-plus hour theme park documentary about David Bowie committed to the essence of performance, tuned up with a big honking noisy rock show swagger, built for IMAX dispensation along with future midnight cinematic runs for years on end—sees director Brett Morgen choosing to use audio clips from the enigmatic all-time rock star to narrate his own feature. Bowie’s mumblecore snippets—sometimes internal dialogue that slip out—take the lead as running commentary interspersed with shifting aspect ratios and film stocks to visually depict the frenetic points and psychological states of Bowie’s creative eras that roar and ping throughout several decades, constantly rubbing up against one another.
In 2017, the legendary singer’s estate allowed the director and his crew access to a remarkable collection of artifacts from the musician’s life, including artwork, photos, and concert and interview footage. Morgen retained the final edit on the film.
So when we catch Bowie trying on full pop stardom some 15 years into his career like a new ensemble, with Pepsi and big ’80s commercialism feeding the adrenaline rush instead of controlled substances, it’s Bowie’s own recorded accounts on alienation and isolation providing the narrative stock. That Let’s Dance phase, which he later refers to as his Phil Collins era, is not a deviation. It’s a continuance of playing a role, a different one, but still a musical facade.
When we see Ziggy Stardust perform live in concert, high on pastel make-up, codpieces, and kimono wear, or catch Bowie stone-cold sober, with no hair dye, working on sound during his Berlin stretch–possibly the closest we as an audience will ever get to the actual David Bowie, not the performer, nor the actor, it’s his voice we’re captivated by and rightfully so.
I don’t want opinions about The Thin White Duke from a publicist, a musician, or a serious rock journalist. Morgen knows that. So he supplies us with a staggering account of how out-of-control alienation deteriorated his health. During an effort to save his own life we see a 75-pound, Bowie, in the back of a limo, detailing a fly stuck in a carton of milk while drinking from it, as he’s shuttled across the desert from Los Angeles on the way to Berlin.
If you’re creating the ultimate David Bowie theme park, that’s how to project a man who’s fallen to the earth, and I don’t say that in jest either.
Moonage Daydream doesn’t gossip. It tosses a finger to chronological rock star biopic storytelling. Granted we get no real new facts about our subject either. There are currently about 36 books available that grind on with tropes and yarns. Morgen’s feature immerses us in the ether of performance, studio time, epic world travels of self-discovery—with a focus on Asia—personal music videos. Bowies’ life’s philosophies, and other such things. The deliberate staging of Ziggy Stardust as a God-like figure, singing a whitewashed rendition of the blues in a non-binary presentation gets divulged here as the model of pinpoint curation in rock and roll shock tactics. From the hair to pansexual delivery, it’s an outward flip on Little Richard’s gregariousness. One of many things David Jones did not miss.
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to Treble since 2018. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in The Wire, 48 Hills, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK and Drowned In Sound.