Floating in a most peculiar way: The Moonage Daydream Bowie film at Cannes

”Dead the circuit, countdown‘s wrong…“

That Moonage Daydream film then. It’s left me a wee bit bewitched, bothered and bewildered, as I‘m about to explain.

I’ve waited enough Bowie hours to post my initial thoughts and do you know what? I’m still utterly baffled and perplexed by it, though not half as much as the French journalist who was sitting next to me.

Brett Morgen’s movie is a topsy-turvy collage that portrays our favourite Dame as the polymath artist of a generation. But whose generation? 

Moonage Daydream eschews trying to tell a story by putting Bowie’s considerable achievements into some kind of chronology or even context. Indeed, the only year I can recall being mentioned was 1971, which makes some sort of sense as the film is so Ziggy heavy and almost paints his breakthrough in ‘72 as Year Zero.

Morgen has gone for abstract vignettes rather than any kind of narrative or cohesion. His parents and brother excepted, none of the key people who helped shape Bowie’s life and career get a mention with the exception of Iman and Brian Eno, one of the few collaborators Bowie felt was an equal rather than a hired hand. 

That this film has the official seal of approval confirmed via a telling roll call of executive producers who either worked for Bowie’s Isolar personal office or RZO, his New York business managers, tells you all you need to know.

First wife Angie? Mainman? Ken Pitt? Ken Scott? Nile Rodgers? Not even a passing namecheck in their direction. Then again, there’s no Queen or Tin Machine so it’s not all bad, though at least a Reeves Gabriel (sic) gets a cursory one-liner in the closing credits.

As for Mick Ronson and the Spiders From Mars? From what I recall, you see just as much Jeff Beck as you do them. More on him in a bit.

Even more surprising, Bowie’s records are generally not even mentioned by name, though you certainly see and hear plenty of them — including what sounded like alternate studio vocals for Quicksand, Sound And Vision*, Absolute Beginners* etc. (excitingly, S&V even makes use of some discarded lyrics) — in various clever if disconcerting song collages broken up with numerous snippets of interview footage, some audio some video.

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The fun bits? 

It’s Hallo Spaceboy rather than the title track that effectively launches the prologue AND it’s the deliciously disco Pet Shop Boys revamp to boot, making Neil Tennant the only featured vocalist in the entire movie. Even Tina Turner — used to illustrate Bowie’s eighties decent into cash grab Pepsi ads — is only seen and not heard. Knowing how much that will annoy much of very old school Bowie fandom I’m still slightly amused about that.

Nice to see Jeff Beck has finally allowed one of his two guest performances with The Spiders at the Hammersmith ‘farewell’ in 1973 an official release too, with The Jean Genie-Love Me Do making the grade here, particularly the Beatles bits.

Though it’s still infuriatingly rouge, DA Pennebaker’s footage looks like it’s received a restoration of sorts, which pretty much indicates an inevitable 50th anniversary redo next year.

Interestingly, although Moonage Daydream incorporates a hefty chunk of the slightly snoozy 1983 tour film Ricochet, the associated rare outtake of Bowie singing John Lennon’s Imagine on the third anniversary of his death has not been included, though as with a good 70% or more of the material used in Morgen’s film, it is viewable via YouTube.

Slightly disappointingly, while David Mallet’s shot-on-video promos look incredibly grainy on the big screen — particularly Ashes To Ashes and Boys Keep Swinging — Morgen is on record as stating that he deliberately excluded a pivotal performance like Starman on the BBC’s Top Of The Pops because of quality issues. Intriguing.

And the much trumpeted unseen clips? There are a few morsels from 1974’s so-called Soul Tour, some in black and white and some in colour.

But again, the source material is so low-grade it somehow feels like they’re better suited to viewing via a phone screen — say the David Bowie Is app where some of the material was apparently premiered, for instance — rather than a hook up on the silver screen.

David Hemmings’ 1978 tour clips are lovely, especially Sound And Vision at Earls Court, but that aside the unearthed nuggets are more medium rare rather than well done.

And if you’re scratching your head wondering where all the audio clips have come from, and thinking “That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I’d expect David Bowie to say”, well that’s probably because ‘he’ didn’t. The one that really jumped out for me was where an ageing Bowie exclaims that “life is fantastic!”. “Why does he sound so old?” I asked myself.

Upon closer investigation it turns out it’s dialogue taken from a little known independent film called Mr. Rice’s Secret. Artistic licence much? Perhaps but then Morgen is clever enough to know that Bowie was never about the truth, so why would a film about him attempt to be?

In summation, Moonage Daydream is an artistic piece: an occasionally enjoyable impressionistic film for audiences who know the story of The Dame inside out.

It’s an immersive, floaty and often formless kaleidoscopic collage that’s clearly been designed to experience Bowie the artist (not the man, whoever that was) not learn about him. In other words, essentially a glorified sizzle reel stringing together interviews and performances any serious fan is likely to have already seen.

Anyone who goes to a screening wanting to hear about his impact, influence and place in popular culture is going to be sorely disappointed.

I came away feeling a touch bewitched bothered and bewildered that I willingly gave up my tickets to the press screening at Cannes’ Cineum IMAX that afternoon. Nevertheless I’m sure I’ll catch the movie again in quieter times.

On the way out, I asked the French journo what he thought and he paused.

“It’s… how do you say it in English? Hermetically sealed? It’s one for the fans, isn’t it.”

Indeed it is. It’s arty, weird and a bit pretentious. Much like Bowie himself.

Steve Pafford

*On closer inspection it appears the Absolute Beginners vocal is disappointingly taken from the Lazarus soundtrack, as performed by Michael C. Hall. Unless it’s my ears deceiving me in middle age, just before that starts there is an unintelligible soundbite that sounds very much like Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr. The Mysteries? Not arf.

For the record, if I were a betting man I would put money on some of the alt S&V vocals being taken from a live rehearsal. As Bowie‘s vocals seem of a richer baritone and very playful and ‘up’ as apposed to anything on Low I’d hazard a guess they emanate from the unreleased David Hemmings film of Earls Court, 1978.

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