Brett Morgen’s psychedelic portrait of the Thin White Duke captivates and confounds–and makes for excellent UHD material
It seems to me that David Bowie appears in people’s lives precisely when he needs to. Growing up, I was a pretty introverted kid, in the closet and socially awkward even in my pre-teens. Around this time, I first saw Labyrinth, and who couldn’t fall under the spell of Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King? Here was this person who didn’t conform to the real world that Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah was spirited away from, and one who easily felt at home amidst a cadre of otherworldly oddities than among more straight-laced people. The music of Labyrinth soon sent me down a rabbit hole of musical discovery–made even more impactful when it came to the revelations of Bowie’s open explorations of bisexuality and gender fluidity. To this baby Queer kid, Bowie became the aspirational end goal–not just to explore and question the mysteries of life and our roles in it, but to be able to openly do so without a care of other people’s judgment or presuppositions.
From the moment he broke onto the music scene to his shocking surprise exit from this mortal plane two days after the release of his final album Blackstar, Bowie reveled in transforming questions of identity into answers in and of themselves; No one is their own static identity, an end result that we hopefully come to by the end of our lives, but an endless swirl of experiences and provocations. Brett Morgen’s experimental Bowie documentary, Moonage Daydream, wonderfully captures that sense of chaotic transformation. Radically re-grading and re-recording archival from throughout Bowie’s life, Morgen chops and screws endless Bowie ephemera to translate an experience of Bowie to audiences rather than create a didactic and linear examination of who this artist was. At times, the documentary feels like a Mirror-esque blend of memory, attempting to sift through the artistic detritus of Bowie’s life to understand who this elusive figure was; on the flip side, Moonage Daydream also feels like a Voyager-style transmission by Bowie to whatever alien planet he came from, relaying his own attempts to understand the world around him. Whether or not either attempt is ultimately successful is to miss the point entirely. Rather, both ways of viewing Moonage Daydream celebrate the act of trying to make sense of the world and its beautifully conflicted citizens–and at the risk of sounding glib, what better way to do that than the power of music?
Of remarkable note is just how Brett Morgen places his own stamp on the film’s experimentation with sound and vision. There’s the digital obfuscation of concert footage, free from any professional sheen à la Stop Making Sense or The Eras Tour with its fuzzy, mid-crowd perspective or static masks, rendering its singer into a resurrected ghost from the machine. In some sequences, crowds have been re-recorded and augmented to lend greater heft to single-reel secondhand tape recordings and create an immersive, at times overwhelming Dolby Atmos mix. Silent films (Metropolis chief among them), concert footage, and other covert recordings are further re-tinted and multiplied to create a colorful kaleidoscopic effect, comfortably assaulting the senses to disorienting degrees. And unbound by typical documentary structure, Morgen plays with how past, present, and future interact with one another. A call-and-response is established between previously unconnected moments–notably how Bowie in an airport customs line reacts to a call from a concert crowd, “pulling him back” to that moment in the words of director Morgen.
Of the many documentaries in the Criterion Collection, Moonage Daydream’s inclusion is notable in how it rejects the idea of distance required of a documentarian regarding its subject. There are valid questions raised by what isn’t included in Morgen’s collection of footage–notably Bowie’s brushes with substance abuse and fascism (later recanted)–as well as the linking of myriad Bowie quotes and imagery ripped free from the context that should better define and clarify them. These are by far the most frustrating aspects of Moonage Daydream, and may stymie Bowie neophytes and veterans alike in attempts to paint a more factual picture of what this enigmatic figure was truly like. What’s refreshing about Moonage Daydream, however, is that it never promises to be a rigorous documentary about David Bowie in the first place. In its rigorous reimagining of footage and audio, it embraces the mysteries that its central figure spent a lifetime pursuing–and over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours, attempts to find a closer relationship with this iconic figure through its immersion in cinematic chaos.
Criterion presents Moonage Daydream in 2160p 4K SDR on the UHD and a 1080p HD transfer on the accompanying Blu-ray Disc. Both discs include a 2.0-channel Stereo mix and a default Dolby Atmos mix. No transfer information is provided (an oddity for any Criterion release), but further digging reveals that this transfer comes straight from studio NEON for this disc. SDH subtitles are provided for the feature film.
It’s difficult to quantify the picture quality for the entire extreme repository of footage Morgen and his crew collected for Moonage Daydream, which already shifts between aspect ratios, film stocks, and digital alteration and upscaling before being re-graded, duplicated, and more in post-production. Film degradation and artifacting are deliberately present throughout, as well as digital ghosting and other editorial marks. However, across both discs, the footage remains uniquely stunning, especially in sequences that have been restored from grainy 8mm or ancient televised transmissions to nearly “shot yesterday” resolution. The only detractions may be in the incorporation of non-Bowie footage like Nosferatu or 2001: A Space Odyssey, which seems to have all the quality of secondhand YouTube rips–a decision as likely out of licensing practicality as much as artistic intent. The Blu-ray copy is more forgiving when it comes to the artifacts in these sequences–but for the concert and behind-the-scenes footage of Bowie’s life, the UHD is remarkable.
The Dolby Atmos mix of Moonage Daydream will put any sound system through its paces, utilizing every speaker to hallucinatory and immersive quality. Morgen and mixers David Giammarco and Paul Massey’s laborious sound mix translates so damn well here, with deliberate re-loops of crowds and layers of disparate recording sources lending a modern currency and otherworldly quality to decades of archival material.
Note: Aside from Morgen’s commentary and the Trailer, all special features are on the accompanying Blu-ray disc.
- Audio Commentary: Recorded in 2023, this rare commentary from director Morgen is a thoughtful exploration of his vast decisions in sifting through the materials he and his team had access to from the Bowie estate, often at his own reticence in the hopes of preserving the anti-informative, experiential quality of the film.
- Q&A at the TCL Chinese Theater: Footage of the film’s 2022 premiere in Los Angeles, introduced by Jack Black and followed by a Q&A with Brett Morgen and musician/Bowie collaborator Mike Garson, moderated by fellow filmmaker Mark Romanek.
- Moonage Soundscapes: An audio-based interview with re-recording mixers David Giammarco and Paul Massey accompanied by behind-the-scenes footage of the complex mixing and looping process for the film’s Dolby Atmos mix. Notable inclusions are the film’s stadium recording sessions, where mono-track archival live performances were played as microphones were staggered throughout the space in order to create more surround-sound versions.
- Rock N’ Roll With Me (Live) 1974: A previously-unavailable raw concert recording of Bowie performing this song in Buffalo, New York in November 1974.
- Trailer for NEON’s theatrical and IMAX release of the film.
- Essay by British film critic Jonathan Romney on how Moonage Daydream’s radical experimentalism does justice to the overwhelming experience of Bowie’s life, one shared then and now by the artist’s devoted fan base.
- Accompanying Romney’s essay is a collectible poster, printed on the opposite side.
Moonage Daydream is now available on 4K UHD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.