August 5, 2022

Film

Daydream believer: Director Brett Morgen

By Andy Hazel
Image of Moonage Daydream director Brett Morgen. Photograph © Olivier Vigerie / Neon

Moonage Daydream director Brett Morgen. Photograph © Olivier Vigerie / Neon

Morgen’s freeform documentary about David Bowie, ‘Moonage Daydream’, explores the philosophy and creativity of one of popular music’s icons

The director Brett Morgen takes a low seat at a low table, furniture that almost seems designed to exaggerate his outsize temperament.

“If I do a film on the Beatles, I know they’re from Liverpool,” he says, shaking his head, widening his eyes dismissively and pushing his collar-length, wet-look mane of grey hair behind his ear with one hand. “I know they went to India. I don’t need to use the real estate to go there. Just give me the fucking – excuse me – give me the music and give me the experience.”

Despite living and working for most of his life in Los Angeles, Morgen is almost a cliché of “Hey, I’m walking here!” New York. He seems almost impatient with how long it takes to express his thoughts, which come in staccato sentences. After he apologises for using the word “fucking”, his conversation is peppered with expletives. He is thrillingly brusque and has no qualms making an interviewer feel foolish for asking a question he sees as misguided. Time matters to Brett Morgen. The filmmaker best known for award-laden documentaries On the Ropes, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Crossfire Hurricane, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and the Jane Goodall documentary Jane seems an unlikely person for the archetypal aesthete David Bowie to have selected to work with in 2007. During that meeting the two spoke about collaborating on what Morgen describes as “a hybrid nonfiction film”, but the unlikeliness of that pairing vanishes within the opening seconds of Morgen’s documentary Moonage Daydream, a defiantly nonlinear and immersive exploration of what he calls “the public Bowie”.

“The movie to me is not about David Jones. It’s not about David Bowie. It’s about Bowie. It’s all performance. Every second of the film,” he says, seriously. “If you believe Bertolt Brecht, everything is performance, so when Bowie is on stage singing he’s performing, when he’s on a television show he’s performing, when he’s in a movie he’s performing. When he’s in a documentary – are you fucking kidding me? – he’s performing. Okay? So I make no distinction between [Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 Bowie-starring science fiction film] The Man Who Fell to Earth or [1975 Bowie documentary] Cracked Actor. They’re all the same to me. If my children see the film they don’t know there’s a movie called The Man Who Fell to Earth, they think it’s documentary footage of David Bowie.”

This freeform approach to the icon’s life, influences and philosophies is bolstered enormously by Morgen’s access to what the film’s press release describes as “over five million assets” from Bowie’s estate. Artworks, videos, recordings, journals and home movies are drawn together, sometimes occupying the same frame, to give a sense of Bowie’s staggering creativity, particularly during the 1970s and early 1980s. Taking in his work in West End theatre, films, drawing and writing, these artefacts serve as a reminder of the variety of media beyond music to which he was equally suited. Morgen was given access to the archives on one condition. The executor of Bowie’s estate, Bill Zysblat, told Morgen, “David is not here to approve this. So, it’s not going to be David Bowie on David Bowie. It’s Brett Morgan on David Bowie, and you have to approach it that way and make it your own.”

“It took two years to get through it,” Morgen says, resting his elbow on his knee and holding up two fingers. “And they were two years of maybe 15-hour days, six days a week. By myself. It was a very lonely endeavour.” All up, the project took five years of Morgen’s life, although a significant event would reshape the entire project.

“While I was making the film, I had a heart attack,” he says evenly and without blinking. “And it wasn’t just a heart attack; I flatlined for three minutes. I stayed in a coma for five days. And that was really early on. That was January 5th, 2017. I was in a coma, one year to the day that David died.” Morgen says the heart attack was due to his obsession with work. “What message am I leaving my children?” he asks rhetorically. “I missed a lot of family dinners, you know? And ‘work hard’ is not a good message to leave your kids when you die at 47.”

As he wrestled with existential questions while in recovery, he continued to work his way through Bowie’s archives and, to his surprise, he found answers within the material. “I had no idea what an amazing person he was, and how sage he was,” Morgen says. “And suddenly I realised that through him, I could create a roadmap for my children to present them with: ‘This is how you live a satisfying and complete life in the 21st century’. And it really wasn’t just for my children, it was for myself. I needed the messaging.”

Fearful of turning a film about David Bowie into a film about himself, Morgen initially refused to do press on Moonage Daydream before he and the distributors realised that there was no one else able to talk about it. “This week is the first time I’ve been public with my heart attack because of fears of reprisals from the industry. My insurers knew that I had a heart attack. I’m not insurable anymore. I don’t know if you noticed but [One Hour Photo director] Mark Romanek had a very special thanks in the credits. Mark agreed to step in in the event that something should happen to me.”

With this focus on Bowie’s philosophy and performance, I ask, where did you draw the line between the private and public Bowie. While the film contains mentions of his parents and brother, and we see footage of his second wife, Iman, there is no mention of Bowie’s first wife, Angie, and son Zowie (who became the director Duncan Jones), and who both proved influential on Bowie’s creativity.

“It’s not a biography,” he says, again fixing me with a piercing gaze and furrowing his brow slightly. “I’m going to stop. I’m not going to talk about the family, just to respect their privacy. The actual question I would mention in reverse is, ‘Why did I mention Iman and the brother?’ Because art is imperfect.” He leans forward. “And really, one of the most liberating lessons I learnt is that there are no mistakes, there are only happy accidents. Ninety per cent of the edits in this film were accidental. They were things I was intending to be something else and made a mistake and went, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool’. I’m not an editor, I was fucking around, I was making an arts-and-crafts project. It was very intuitive. When I made Moonage Daydream, there was no reference point. Maybe films like this one exist and they’re not part of my vocabulary, but the idea of making a film about a subject and [it] not be biographical was really intriguing to me,” he says, relaxing back into his chair for the first time.

In David Bowie, Brett Morgen found one of the few subjects whose public personae suit this approach without the film’s stylistic diversity obscuring the man himself. And with the material in the film, much of which will be new to even the most devout fans, the film lives up to that most overused term, “immersive”. “Cinemas, particularly IMAX cinemas, have the best speakers in the world,” he says. “I want to create a new type of cinema that is not biographical, that is experiential, kind of like Laserium or a planetarium.”

Morgen’s film overwhelms the senses with its chaotic blend of live footage of Bowie, alongside the science-fiction films, philosophical ideas and literature that influenced him. But Bowie himself, ever magnetic, is always the guiding light, prompting questions such as those asked by the American television host Dick Cavett: “Who is he, what is he, where did he come from? Is he dangerous, smart, dumb … crazy, sane, man, woman, robot, what is this?” Morgen’s film may not seek to answer those questions, but its exploration of the man at the centre of them makes for one of the most fascinating and inventive music documentaries in a long time.

Andy Hazel

Andy Hazel is a Melbourne-based writer and The Saturday Paper’s editorial assistant.

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