Movies about the 20th century’s greatest musicians are having something of a moment at Cannes Film Festival. Sandwiched between Ethan Coen’s archival Jerry Lee Lewis documentary, and Baz Luhrman’s all-singing, all-dancing Elvis biopic is Moonage Daydream – a David Bowie doc like no other about an artist without equal.
This is because Moonage Daydream isn’t your typical talking head, cradle to the grave tale of rags to riches, excess and success. Part concert movie, part psychedelic art installation, part elliptical account of the major stages in Bowie’s artistic evolution, it’s a film that defies trad documentary convention to create something thrillingly unique in the space – there’s little question Bowie would have loved it.
Reportedly assembled using some 5 million pieces of material from the Bowie archives, and in the works for half a decade, director Brett Morgen’s (Kobain: Montage Of Heck, The Kids Stay In The Picture) focus isn’t David Jones – the person, but David Bowie – the performer; the shapeshifting rock god that Bowie presented to the world over the best part of five decades. Truly personal insights are few and far between, but artistic and philosophical revelations are plentiful.
Narratively, there’s just enough of a throughline for those with even the bare minimum of background biographical info to keep up with what can generously be called a story here. But where the film really sings (literally) is the stunning remastered performance footage. Remixed in multi-channel surround sound by Paul Massey from Bowie’s original stems, listening to Moonage Daydream on an Atmos, or 12.0 IMAX audio (Morgen’s preferred presentation) sound sytem, is like hearing Bowie anew.
Where your mileage may vary is when it comes to the film’s ‘experiential’ interludes, which come in the form of animated sequences, clips from music videos or films (Metropolis features prominently, as well as several of the movies Bowie starred in, and clips from his time on stage playing John Merrick in The Elephant Man), or any number of kaleidoscopic screensavers that add not one jot to the narrative, but are integral to the atmosphere of transcendental psychedelia that Morgen cultivates.
Clocking in at 140 minutes, it’s not a film that’s in a rush, but neither can it be comprehensive in a way you might reasonably expect from one of the first major Bowie documentaries since his death in 2016. Morgen, however, is smart about choosing his focus points, ensuring that everyone from the most ardent Ziggy Stardust fanatic to those who only know of Bowie from The Life Aquatic soundtrack will find something to take away.
As the film film draws to a close, a stunning musical moment sums up the genius of Bowie in a way that no 10-part talking head documentary ever could. In it, Morgen cosmically connects “Silly Boy Blue” from Bowie’s self-titled ’67 album and “Blackstar” – the title track from his final studio album – in a revelatory flash of sonic synergy that will leave you wondering if Bowie had, somehow, impossibly, planned every step in his 50-year musical odyssey from the start. Who would put it past him?
Moonage Daydream releases in IMAX cinemas on 16 September in the UK and US, and wide in UK cinemas from 23 September. Stick with Total Film for all the latest coverage from Cannes 2022 – check out our review of David Cronenberg’s Crimes Of The Future, through that link.
4 out of 5
Moonage Daydream review, Cannes: “A David Bowie doc like no other, about an artist without equal”
Unconventional, almost to a fault, Brett Morgen’s impressionistic, experiential Bowie documentary is an electrifying oddity.