‘When You Eliminate the Wikipedia, You Arrive at the Personal’: Inside the Making of ‘Moonage Daydream’
How complete access to the Bowie estate’s archives — and a near-death experience — helped filmmaker Brett Morgen make a singular doc about one of the greatest rock stars ever
Brett Morgen vividly remembers the first time he met David Bowie. When the Thin White Duke insults your work, it tends to burn deep into your memory. It was 2007, at which point Morgen had been a filmmaker for over a decade and had made documentaries on boxers (On the Ropes), Black music in America (the Say It Loud series), legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans (The Kid Stays in the Picture) and the Chicago 10 (Chicago 10). He had this idea for a collaboration with Bowie on what he called “a sort-of hybrid experimental film.” A lifelong fan, he was beyond excited when the rock star agreed to a meeting.
And then, Morgen recalls over a Zoom call from his home in Los Angeles, the sit-down with Bowie and his associates started getting “a little contentious. He went from dismissive to just ripping into one of my movies. I felt like I was being tested. Right after he laid into me, someone asked, ‘What’s your favorite Bowie album, Brett?’ I said, ‘Well, to be quite candid, I haven’t really appreciated anything he’s done since 1983.’ Then David just looked at me and went, ‘Touché.’ No one had ever said ‘Touché’ to me before! I thought that just happened in movies.”
When Bowie died in early 2016, the filmmaker was in the process of developing a potential series of IMAX movies on musicians that he wanted to lean toward the experiential: “Something that wasn’t a biographical documentary, that wasn’t a concert film, but was more cinematic.” He rang up Bill Zysblat, Bowie’s manager who’d been at that original pitch, and explained what he was thinking of doing. The manager replied, “‘David actually loved the meeting you guys had; I’m not sure if you know this, but we’ve collected and saved everything. David never wanted to make a traditional documentary, so we weren’t sure what we were going to do with all this stuff. And it sounds like you’ve created a format that might work for us.’”
That was the beginning of Moonage Daydream, Morgen’s extraordinary portrait of the late artist as cosmic philosopher, glam trickster, and sage-like cypher via a stream-of-consciousness blend of vintage performances, rare archival clips and career-spanning interviews. Or rather, it was one of several beginnings. For Morgen, the project would turn out to be a five-year odyssey that included a near-death experience, a hobo-like trip through New Mexico, and a radical rethinking of what it means to balance the professional and the personal when making a music doc. Befitting for a movie about the most chameleonic musician of the late 20th century, the final result is something that kept reinventing itself as it went along, evolving and constantly chasing after new ways of telling the story of someone who refused to be pinned down. Constructed completely out of archival footage, this was never going to be a straightforward, cradle-to-grave look at Bowie’s life and times — what Morgen describes as the “Best Buy presents the greatest hits” style of rockumentaries. Yet much like Morgen’s 2016 documentary on Kurt Cobain, Montage of Heck, it pushes an exhilarating stream-of-consciousness blend of performance footage, clips of movies and music that influenced its subject and an abundance of sound + vision close to the very edge of completely falling apart. (It premieres tonight at a midnight screening at the Cannes Film Festival and will hit theaters in September.)
And while die-hard Bowie disciples will swoon over a lot of never-before-seen footage of Bowie during the many eras of his career (notably longer snippets of his legendary 1978 Earl’s Court show) and Tony Visconti and Paul Massey’s remixes/translations of Bowie’s original stems for the soundtrack, Morgen’s aim was to make something that functioned as more than just a sonic scrapbook or a for-the-fans love letter. “After what I went through while I was making this,” Morgen says, “I needed to make something personal with this. But I also wanted to give people who weren’t fans of Bowie a sense of who he was, and have this function as a canvas where others could see the Bowie they know in here as well. Something where a viewer could fill in the blanks.”
So how did he manage to go about doing that? Morgen takes a deep breath and looks directly into his Zoom camera. “This is what I did: I lost my shit.”
Morgen describes what he says is a tried-and-true method for diving into documentaries involving long artistic legacies: He tries to read as many books and consume every bit of media that he can on someone, all in chronological order. That way, he says, he can provide context for what can be a lot of random, out-of-context footage; once he’s done that, he can start to establish a through line and begin writing a script that underlines any connections or recurring themes he wants to dig into. “Because all of that media is just letters, really,” he notes, by way of explanation. “It’s ‘A, B, C, D…’ — it’s my vocabulary to cut the film with. And then the connections tend to present themselves more organically.”
That’s how Morgen crafted Crossfire Hurricane, his 2012 look at the Rolling Stones, and how he put together the diaristic Montage of Heck. Since he’d be making the first doc with the co-operation of the Bowie estate, and thus have the keys to their archives, it made sense to apply the same modus operandi to Moonage. Morgen soon found himself completely overwhelmed with all things Bowie-related.
“Let me put this in perspective for you,” he says. “With Crossfire, it took me two and half months to get from the birth of the Stones to 1981. With Montage, it was about two months as well. I had four months marked on my calendar to get through all of the Bowie stuff…and it took two years.” When the number “five million” is mentioned — that’s what Moonage Daydream‘s press notes clock as the number of materials the Bowie archive gave Morgen access to — he’s quick to point out that that number only pertains to what was in the archives, and does not include the other media he compiled and consumed on his own. It was, by his own account, a Herculean undertaking.
Still, Morgen’s inner fan was in heaven. The director had heard rumors about Bowie taping the Philadelphia show of his Diamond Dogs tour with two cameras, supposedly just so he could see how the performance was playing onstage from the audience’s point of view. One afternoon, he suddenly found himself watching the fabled show by himself in a screening room, “knowing that it was too grainy to blow up to IMAX and feeling selfish that I was likely the first person to watch this in 50 years — and the only person who’d get to see it.
“What blew my mind, however, was the next bit that comes up,” he continues, “and it’s the Soul tour. After Bowie started the Diamond Dogs tour, he got to L.A. and decided that he wanted to do more of an R&B, gospel type of show. So he throws the set list away, goes back on the road, and goes across America with Luther Vandross as his backup singer and Mike Garson as his musical director. If you like Young Americans, it’s essentially the Young Americans tour, right? And he’d recorded two full shows, one in Buffalo and one in Washington D.C. It was like the Holy Grail. I said, ‘I don’t care if they might look bad in IMAX — some of this is going into the fucking film one way or the other.’”
Then, on January 5, 2017, Morgen suffered a massive heart attack. He flat-lined for three full minutes, then lay in a coma for five days. And when the filmmaker awakened, everything had completely changed. “I was 47 years old, which is relatively young for a heart attack,” Morgen says. “But my life was completely out of balance. I started to think about what sort of impact I’d leave behind, what sort of lessons I’d taught my kids to that point. And it was, work hard, work hard, work harder — the same things that put me in the hospital. I was lost and needed to learn how to live and breathe again.”
When he finally went back to screening Bowie’s old interviews, TV appearances, and concert clips, Morgen still saw the early Seventies singer with the screwed-up eyes and screwed-down hairdo, the man who made you believe he might have actually fallen to Earth from some far-out planet. But now he also began to pick up on what he thought of a guide for living a more present life, and how not to let time pass you by, in his subject’s story. All of Bowie’s musings about art, change, and his need for constant growth began to feel less like soundbites and more like something profound. He found himself tapping deeper into the Tao of Bowie. “There was a lot of wisdom and guidance and nurturing that now came to the forefront,” he says. “I realized that, through David, I’d have an opportunity to tell my kids everything that they would need to know about how to live a fulfilling life in the 21st century.”
By the time Morgen had recovered and finally finished viewing all of the Bowiemania he’d assembled, he realized that Moonage Daydream had strayed extremely far from most of his original notions. Still, while he had some idea of how he wanted the movie to feel — how to emphasize the “experiential” aspect of sitting in a theater and feeling as if you’re seeing and hearing Bowie’s work for the first time — Morgen still wasn’t sure what the connective tissue was that would allow him to do it. “I still didn’t want to make a film that explained anything — ‘He did this and he did that,’” he says. “But because the heart attack had messed with my memory, I was having a hard time remembering what I’d seen two years ago and connecting it to the later stuff. I didn’t have a producer or a research assistant to bounce things off of, or a studio executive giving me notes. The weight of doing Bowie without a safety net, without a sort of straight narrative to lock into, was terrifying. I didn’t know how to do it. I was excited by the Bowie Guide to Living aspect but in a dark place about everything else.”
What happened next is the “lost my shit” part, and Morgen is well aware that what he’s about to say runs the risk of sounding completely ridiculous. But he’s also quick to emphasize how vital it would turn out to be in the end. “My family had gone out of town for a week in the early part of the summer of 2018,” he recalls. “I woke up one morning and I don’t know what got into me, but I called my office and said, ‘I’m going to Albuquerque.’ I boarded a Southwest flight out of L.A. And the second after I landed, I took a taxi to the train station and I decided I was going to ride the rails until I cracked the fucking spell.”
Morgen lets out a long laugh. “I know it sounds absurd, trust me,” he says. “But it really isn’t. It’s Bowie 101. Get out of your environment. Leave your comfort zone. These were part of the oblique strategies he employed with Brian Eno, and the obstacles he’d set for himself. This was, in fact, I think, David’s most singular creative approach, was stay out of the comfort zone. You need to challenge yourself. So intuitively, I knew I’d been in my office for eight months trying to write the script and it wasn’t coming. I just had to get the fuck out of there.”
And it was during that days-long train ride, he said, that he’d finally find his through line. “It’s transience,” Morgen says. “That’s the one thing that’s constant in his life and in his career. You can filter every one of his albums through that lens, and so many of his artistic choices. Normally, people talk about it in terms of fashion and musical genres with him, but you see it everywhere with him: chaos, spirituality, gender fluidity, his approach to songwriting. Even the 1980s act as a sort of reaction to transience! From there, the script just pored out of me, and it became the idea of fashioning a kind of jukebox musical around that idea. Take three songs from each album, so I’m not leaning too much on one period over another. Each song has to have some relationship to transience. It could be the writing, or the way he wrote it. It can be thematically overt or be subtle. But they somehow had to connect, so that whether the audience understood it or not, it could tell there was a purpose to it being there.”
Now that he’d cracked the spell, Morgen began to go through footage again and make the connections he wanted to make. The one-man-band act meant that the process was long and slightly drawn-out — “When you write a sentence, you can just delete it. When you’re a filmmaker and assembling something together, it might be three weeks before you realize, ‘This doesn’t work’” — so he’d eventually decided to bring in some outside help. He hired Bob Murawski, an Oscar-winning editor who’s cut everything from The Hurt Locker to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, to help assemble scenes.
And then, three weeks into their collaboration, the pandemic hit. “Because of my heart condition, I had to be totally isolated,” he says. “Prior to that, we had 20 interns working in the building. And then everyone, including Bob, had to leave the project. He couldn’t come to me, and because we weren’t allowed to take our media outside of our office, the work could not come to him. So by necessity, I entered the pandemic quarantined off with this movie. It was daunting. And yet…”
Morgen pauses for a second. “I don’t mean to make light of any of this, but: Bowie was the best quarantine companion one could possibly have. You know, I’m sitting here, two years removed from a heart attack, and I’ve moved into my office because I’m too freaked out to be around anyone. So I’m all alone trying to do this by myself … and yet I’m making a film on an artist whose stock in trade is how to be creative during periods of isolation. It comes up in every phase, from Ziggy to Blackstar. I didn’t see anybody for the first few months of the pandemic, but I saw David’s face every day when I woke up to go to work. It was almost like it was meant to be a piece of pandemic art. That was the only way it could be finished.”
Earlier in our talk, Morgen had admitted he’d had some ambivalence about talking about Moonage Daydream — not just before its release this fall, or prior to its premiere at Cannes, but at all. He wanted people to go in clean and without preconceptions, which he would knew would be difficult given that its subject is a beloved artist about whom everyone has opinions. Yet Morgen was hoping that people would be able to find their own way into the work, and respond to it on their own terms. He was determined, he says, to make a movie that fans admired but that would speak to anyone looking for a map to a better way of moving through the world, ashes to ashes, funk to funky. Even saying that transience is a recurring theme felt like it was leading the witness too much. (It isn’t, and knowing this going in will likely help you admire the detour-heavy arc even more.)
Morgen knows that the estate, “without putting any words in their mouth,” is supportive of the end result. He won’t talk about what the family thinks of the film, as he wants to protect their privacy. He mentions that he screened the final film for a handful of Bowie’s “peers and colleagues and friends” last November, and while he won’t go into details on the record, he will say that they the response he got back was overwhelmingly positive. Whether Bowie would like what Morgen has done with this interpretation of his story is anyone’s guess, though he does say that if Bowie were around today, he’d tell him how working on this “finally made me appreciate all the work he did after 1983 a lot more.”
What Morgen does know, however, is that while some fans may find the lack of biographical structure frustrating, this is the film that best represents his vision of Bowie, at a time when the artist’s words and work literally saved his life. “When you eliminate the Wikipedia, you arrive at the personal,” he says. “I feel like Bowie taught me that. You know, there might be a few things in Moonage Daydream that the estate isn’t happy to have in there. But they gave me final cut, and never told me I had to include this song or that, or make any changes. Right from the start, it was: This isn’t David’s film. He’s not going to see it. This is David Bowie by Brett Morgen. Make it yours.”
From Rolling Stone US.