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Moonage Daydream review: Bowie documentary as zany and brilliant as the man himself

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A still from the film 'Moonage Daydream'

A still from the film 'Moonage Daydream'

A still from the film 'Moonage Daydream'

Moonage Daydream Five stars Now in IMAX, nationwide from Friday; Cert 15A

Five years. That was the space between Brett Morgen flatlining in an emergency room following a heart attack, and Brett Morgen jiving down the red carpet at Cannes back in May to ‘Let’s Dance’.

Five years of sifting through a gigantic archive of footage and recordings provided to the documentarian by the official estate of David Bowie, in order to seek out and distil his essence.

Morgen had set himself quite a task in wanting to memorialise the late great rock deity and cultural icon through film. There was the scale of the project, the numberless hours and days of material to sort through.

But there was also the weight of expectation about a star whose passing swelled an already ubiquitous cult of personality.

People still half-joke that ever since that sad day in January 2016, the world has subsequently gone to hell in a handbasket, as if Bowie was some kind of universe-steadying singularity.

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Bowie in 2013

Bowie in 2013

Bowie in 2013

Morgen embraces such hyperbole – because that was simply the language that attached to Bowie.

As far back as 2007, the US filmmaker has sought to do something about Bowie, who died in January 2016.

With his hugely praised Kurt Cobain portrait Montage of Heck (2015), Morgen secured his name as an unorthodox chronicler of rock life – and permission was granted by the Bowie estate, on the provision that Morgen follow the singer’s vision without deviating.

Bowie’s fierce artistic sensibility held sway from beyond the grave.

The archive Morgen was given access to was gigantic, as Bowie himself had been constantly adding to it in his later years.

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The film-maker’s work-life balance suffered during the trawl, and became dangerously lopsided. His ensuing heart attack saw him flatline for three minutes and end up in a coma.

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David Bowie in LA in January 1971, the year he released 'Hunky Dory'

David Bowie in LA in January 1971, the year he released 'Hunky Dory'

David Bowie in LA in January 1971, the year he released 'Hunky Dory'

During recovery, the wisdom Morgen had encountered in the spoken-word recordings reverberated in his head. Life, Bowie spoke to him, was not so much about how much time we have on this earth, but what we do with that time.

An extraordinary person would require an extraordinary film – but Moonage Daydream still oversteps your expectations about what a rock doc should look and sound like.

This is less a rockumentary than a kaleidoscopic cinema cathedral; less a biographical portrait than a mile-high technicolour mural.

There is little in the way of attempts to explain. Morgen eschews talking heads, rock historians and onlookers.

Only Bowie himself narrates this sewn-together tapestry of footage (much of it never seen before) and juxtapositions.

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Bowie on the Dutch TV show TopPop playing 'Rebel Rebel' in 1974 . Picture by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Bowie on the Dutch TV show TopPop playing 'Rebel Rebel' in 1974 . Picture by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Bowie on the Dutch TV show TopPop playing 'Rebel Rebel' in 1974 . Picture by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

The effect is a mesmerising and elliptical study of the patterns and trace energies that used to follow him restlessly across the albums, the get-ups, the stage and screen appearances. And Bowie – in his own words, his ruminations fresh and spry – makes for inspired voiceover narration.

Morgen should be commended for the holistic collage he assembles about someone who continually defied easy categorisation. Music journalism can seem at pains to put Bowie into a series of phases – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Berlin years, the lamentable Tin Machine project – but David Bowie was compelled by something to never sit still.

Even his death – two days after the release of his Blackstar album – seemed to be an artistic flourish in itself, something almost ‘performed’ for the world on his own mischievous terms.

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Bowie as Ziggy in New York 1973. Picture by Michael Ochs/Getty

Bowie as Ziggy in New York 1973. Picture by Michael Ochs/Getty

Bowie as Ziggy in New York 1973. Picture by Michael Ochs/Getty

Morgen has so much imagery, context and internal reflection to condense into a mere 140 minutes that Bowie’s final bow is briefly but poignantly charted. Instead, we’re intermittently zapped to the cosmos where planets and moonscapes exert suggestive gravitational influences.

A ‘serious’ documentary would run away from the narrative that Bowie’s passing was just another of his transitions.

As images glide and explode, long-time Bowie producer Tony Visconti, and Oscar-winning sound engineer Paul Massey contribute to an astonishing sonic design.

At a time when omniplexes are facing financial restructuring, there is something timely about this big-screen experience that manages to find structure and substance between its array of brilliant crescendos. 

Bowie once sang about waiting for the gift of sound and vision. The wait is over.

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