When filmmaker Brett Morgen was making Moonage Daydream, a documentary about David Bowie, his greatest inspirations were not other films. They were, as the director tells the Guardian’s Tim Lewis, the Laserium’s laser interpretation of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon at the Griffith Observatory, as well as “those inside-theme-park rides at Disneyland.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Moonage Daydream is less of a traditional documentary and more of an “experiential cinematic odyssey,” as described on its website.
The film premiered this spring at the Cannes Film Festival, and it debuts in theaters this month. Though Bowie’s story has been told in numerous documentaries, Moonage Daydream is the first film to be officially sanctioned by the British singer-songwriter’s estate. The movie is named after a song on his 1972 album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, widely regarded as his magnum opus. (Bowie’s handwritten lyrics for “Starman,” another song on the album, are expected to fetch over $35,000 at auction later this month.)
Morgen, known for his movies on Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and primatologist Jane Goodall, had envisioned a creative nonfiction film about Bowie for at least a decade before he began making Moonage Daydream. In 2007, he pitched the idea directly to the musician, but the “timing and scope wasn’t right,” writes the New York Times’ Melena Ryzik.
Following Bowie’s death in 2016, Morgen revisited the idea with the artist’s business manager Bill Zysblat, who runs the Bowie estate. The estate—which also includes Bowie’s widow, the supermodel Iman; their daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones; and Bowie’s son from his first marriage, Duncan Jones—granted Morgen full access to its archives.
The film, which showcases never-before-seen footage, took five years to make. “It took Morgen and his team over a year just to transfer hours of concert and performance footage, images of Bowie’s paintings and other content from the Bowie estate, along with additional footage acquired by Morgen’s archivist,” per the Times, “and about two years to watch it all.”
Those five years weren’t all smooth sailing. Production screeched to a halt in 2017 when the director, 47 at the time, had a heart attack. He flatlined in the hospital and was in a coma for a week.
“It was from that position that I began to go through all of his media,” Morgen tells the Guardian. “His musings on mortality, on aging, his way that he approached life, proved to be quite nurturing, cathartic and inspiring for me. That’s where the film really started to take shape.”
Bowie’s musings are front and center in Moonage Daydream, which avoids the original interviews that are standard in many documentaries, relying instead on archival footage and the artist’s own voice.
“All facts about the man come straight from the horse’s mouth, via old clips, yet half of them contradict one another,” writes critic Jordan Hoffman for AV Club. “Still, you come away feeling that you saw a side of this beloved artist you never knew about before.”