by Geoffrey Churchman
The first time I heard David Bowie on the radio must have been early 1972 at the age of 15 and that is about the starting point for this cinematic exploration of his creativity — predominately musical, but he also acted in some movies (including one filmed partly in NZ, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, some scenes from which are shown) a Broadway play and he painted numerous acrylic artworks, although these were rarely shown publicly.
Although this is nominally a documentary, it’s not in the standard style, being much more an exploration of his creative processes and nearly all the comments are his own in response to interviewer questions over archived footage (and the interviewers don’t feature much.)
Bowie was a flamboyant expander of artistic convention and boundaries, but most importantly a musical genius. His rock songs quickly made him a superstar with his Ziggy Stardust persona over 1972-1973 and impossible to ignore. Fantasy and escapism was a prime motivation: he collected characters and once he had fully explored a persona or character he would drop it and reinvent himself with something different. One of the consequences is that his music covered a big range of styles; hard rock, pop, soul, funk and jazz. In that regard he was much more than say Freddie Mercury and Queen or Elton John, although I rate them all equal in talent.
Making any sense of Bowie lyrics was always a challenge and in one brief clip he shows what he did: write a few brief stories of separate subjects, then cut off each line with scissors, put the lines in a bowl and tip them out on a table.
The camp glam rock with strong indications of bisexuality influenced others including NZ’s Alister Riddell and his band Spacewaltz which were popular locally during 1974-75 before going to Australia and fading away. By that stage a couple more Bowie personas had come and gone, including the Thin White Duke.
Bowie’s numbers often contained disparate elements that weren’t obvious bedfellows — but they injected interest and variety, and with his genius, combining them usually worked, most notably on the “Alladin Sane” album of 1973. Bowie’s collaboration with psychedelic keyboardist Brian Eno in the mid 1970s is covered briefly, but surprisingly not guitarist Mick Ronson who contributed hugely to the arrangement and style of the numbers composed during the two Ziggy Stardust years. Bowie said in an interview (not in this movie) that once he had witnessed Mick Ronson play he knew he had found his Jeff Beck. In fact he had asked Jeff Beck himself, who declined but there is a notable clip of Beck playing with both Bowie and Mick Ronson in July 1973. A documentary on Mick Ronson is here.
The 1980s also saw big musical hit songs and again the styles were different. Two of my Bowie favourites from the 1980s were the themes to Cat People (Putting out Fire) and The Falcon and the Snowman (This is not America”), the latter a collaboration with jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, but aren’t included.
In all about a dozen songs get played in their entirety and there are snippets from a similar number. There is a lot of his philosophy and attitude to life (extremely positive) and determination to achieve as much as he could creatively. One such approach was going outside his comfort zone such as moving to Los Angeles for two years (a city he detested) and a similar time in West Berlin, which resulted in more soundtrack composition, for the movie Christiane F, wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo among others.
The final part of Moonage Daydream dwells briefly on his last album “Dark Star”, released 2 days before his death in January 2016 at the age of 69.
This movie isn’t totally satisfying because of its omissions, but provides a very good insight into Bowie’s creative life, and the director Brett Morgen has ensured there are plenty of shapes, colours and themes woven into it.
Moonage Daydream (135 minutes) is screening at the Shoreline.