Brett Morgen finds the artist behind Bowie’s identities
Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo
It’s hard to think of someone harder to profile than David Bowie. Over his 69 years on this planet, the Thin White Duke went through more phases and adopted more personas than a constellation of lesser pop stars.
Each of them was fascinating.
This is why Moonage Daydream’s approach makes sense. Extremely dense, both visually and content-wise, the documentary lets the late Bowie, who died in 2016, tell his own story. Director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) chooses clips with the artist rising above his characters and unveils a cohesive narrative in which Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane aren’t independent entities, but personas that serve a higher purpose.
Unlike most Bowie-related projects (most notably Velvet Goldmine), Moonage Daydream had the approval of his estate. which granted Morgan access to the rich David Bowie archive vault that includes five million artifacts — from paintings to seldom-seen footage. That’s how the film is able to unveil gorgeous live renditions of “All the Young Dudes” and “The Jean Genie”, among other signature Bowie tunes.
Going into our interview, Brett Morgen can’t help but notice the shirt I’m wearing, featuring the cover of Bowie’s classic album Heroes. “There’s no objectivity in this round,” he comments. “Nah, he’s my guy,” I reply. “Mine too,” says Morgan.
Let me start by complementing you on the selection of Bowie clips. Every time we hear him, he’s saying something important. But what caught my attention was when he acknowledges that, at times, “he lost control”.
I think what he was referring to was when he decided in ’73 to move to Los Angeles to be around people he didn’t like. He wanted to put himself in environments and situations that were challenging and foreign, and part of that was becoming a drug addict in L.A. I think he was implying that he went a little too far.
He was very candid.
Amazingly candid for someone considered to be so elusive. He’s one of the most generous interview subjects I ever experienced.
Was there any aspects of his life you couldn’t crack?
If I answer “I understood everything,” that would be BS. But based upon the conventions of the film — not investigating Davy Jones, but Bowie as an artist — I can tell you that after having the privilege of viewing every piece of known media, I feel very comfortable with the portrait I’m putting forward.
I noticed a throughline between Montage of Heck and Moonage Daydream. What did you learn making the former that you applied in the latter?
I don’t think I can answer that overtly, but I’ll say this: [Moonage Daydream] was birthed because I felt I couldn’t make a cradle-to-the-grave musical biography again. With Kurt [Cobain], because of his short amount of time on Earth, you could contain it. He only had three albums. With someone like Bowie — who has 40 or 50 albums and you could make a whole film for every year of his life — I had to use a different approach. It couldn’t be chronological or factually based, it had to be more ethereal. Fortunately, Bowie provided an arc that allowed me to keep the momentum moving forward without basing it upon the more traditional biographical beats.
We often see in your doc impertinent, straight up hostile journalists interviewing Bowie. In turn, his responses were always thoughtful.
A lot of reporters didn’t understand that Ziggy and all these characters he was putting on stage were creations, it wasn’t David Bowie. They would sit down with him trying to interview Ziggy Stardust and what they found was an incredibly intelligent, grounded, present individual. When he deflected a question, he would do it directly: “I’m not going to answer that.”
What was his motivation to expose himself that way?
He’s as honest and transparent as it gets. There’s that moment in the film when someone says to him, “if you’re in love, you’ve got to share your life,” and he replies, “oh, no, I couldn’t do that. I’m too selfish, I don’t have room to allow someone else in.” This is a pretty outrageous statement for a rock star to be making on a BBC talk show.
When do you know a documentary is done?
When I can’t see anything else left to fix. ■