‘Moonage Daydream’ review: Bowie doc mesmerizes but rarely goes beyond the music
Still from Moonage Daydream

David Bowie was considered one of the most influential music artists of the twentieth century. One could argue that what made him a step ahead of many was his constant reinvention as a public figure and creative. From his musical debut in the mid 1960s to his final album before his death in 2016, Bowie embraced the chaos of his music and the world around him through his songs.

It can be hard to truly define and encompass the life of a man who had so many evolutions in his 69 years, but the new documentary Moonage Daydream attempts to do so in an experimental and immersive way. The results of this effort are at many times visually and audibly mesmerizing, but equally frustrating, as the film fails to go beyond video clips and scattered interviews the artist gave throughout his life.

Fans will rejoice from the sounds of Bowie on the big screen, but most viewers may finish feeling no closer to truly knowing the man and the artist.

Written, directed, and edited by Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck), Moonage Daydream takes the viewer through a journey of Bowie’s life and thoughts through a collection of live performances, art, poetry, and interviews by the artist. Explaining pieces of his life in perhaps the only way that it could be done is Bowie himself, through voiceover from various interviews he had given throughout his career.

It is the first film about Bowie that has the official support of the David Bowie Estate, which allowed Morgen to use personal archived footage and never-before-seen performances. The music production of the film is in capable hands with Tony Visconti, who worked extensively with Bowie on a number of his albums.

This is not your normal documentary. Perhaps, in keeping with the chaos that Bowie was often quoted as speaking on, the film chooses to embrace this philosophy through its outline and structure. There seems to be a linear thought line when it comes to the exploration of Bowie’s changing sound over the decades, but less so when it comes to anything else outside of the albums.

There are times when we’re taken to a brief talk about his childhood and family, but just as quickly there is a shift to decades later. There are times when this works to give insight into some of the early life memories that shaped Bowie’s mindset in certain periods of his music. Other times, it just feels a bit erratic.

Usually, with a documentary you get others who know the subject to sit down for interviews, giving their viewpoints and insights. That is not the case with Moonage Daydream. Aside from some archival footage of fans outside of his concerts talking about what they love about Bowie, no one else is featured to give a glimpse of what they thought about him. Bowie is the authoritative voice in the documentary. This could work overall, but since the clips of him talking are sparse and scattered, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of depth.

Bowie talks about existence and the meaning of life. He speaks about his ideas about love and how they changed over the years.

There are clips that touch upon his sexuality and him publicly declaring himself bisexual back in the 1970s. We get some brief moments about his childhood and tense family life.

There’s talk about his concerns regarding mental illness with himself and certain relatives. Mostly, we have Bowie talking about how certain albums came about and his motivation for them.

We get a look at a man who used his artistry to explore what it meant to be alive, and the purpose of existence. His music style constantly changed because he was constantly changing and growing. He never wanted to feel “settled” as an artist, or that he was putting out what was “expected” of him.

All of this is fascinating in its own right. Yet, if you are aware of Bowie’s life and milestones then the fact that the movie only scratches the surface on some topics, and completely ignores others, will feel glaring.

For one, Bowie was also an actor who starred in a number of notable films and theater productions. He also produced some of his own experimental video shorts.

The film touches on this briefly with a number of clips, and a word or two from Bowie on it, but it feels all too brief. Yes, Bowie was primarily a musical performer, but some of the acting roles he chose to play also helped define who he was.

Then, there is politics. There may have been times in his life when he called himself “apolitical,” but his actions (and other words spoken in other interviews not featured in this film) tell a different tale. Bowie made some statements in his early career (such as praising Adolf Hitler) that he would later rebuke and admit had to do with excessive drug usage and naivety.  But later in life Bowie would become a staunch advocate against racism, fascism, and neo-Nazism. This is reflected in a number of his later albums and songs.

Bowie had gone on record explaining that his music videos for the songs “Let’s Dance” and “China Girl” were statements against racism and oppression. “Let’s Dance” touched on the oppression suffered by Aboriginal people in Australia (an issue still happening today), while “China Girl” dealt with the objectification and stereotypes concerning Asian women. There is an infamous MTV video interview Bowie gave in 1983 where he directly challenged the fact that the super popular television music station rarely covered Black artists.

None of this is touched upon in the film, which seems like a glaring omission if his words in Moonage Daydream are supposed to reflect why he made the decisions he did as an artist. It would have also been nice to highlight this journey, from the regrettable talk about Hitler to his proud stance against racism and oppression years later. If we’re talking about the embodiment regarding change and evolution of an artist, then these seem like pretty big aspects to express the power of said change and chaos.

With the lack of interviews, the two-hour and twenty minute runtime could start to feel like a clip show that goes on a bit long for some, but fans of the music won’t mind. Despite those issues, there is no doubt that Moonage Daydream is a film to experience. It’s not just about watching and listening, but near total immersion into Bowie’s music and art. His voice is a soothing tour guide through many of his diverging and converging musings in the film. It’s gorgeous to look at— and a psychedelic trip to behold— as Bowie’s music plays throughout.


Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.