Music in Film: The Velvet Goldmine #1 – Enigmatic Chronicles of a True Artist in ‘Moonage Daydream’ (2022)

Being a Bowie fan first and a person second, it feels only right to start my first column entry with perhaps the first art-minded documentary made ‘about’ him. Chronological talking heads taught me about the man who fell to earth, in particular Jarvis Cocker-narrated The Story of Ziggy Stardust (2012), which depicts Bowie’s mime choreography with teacher Lindsey Kemp to his first strange, folky self-titled album, which sounded nothing like its hit track “Space Oddity”. By contrast, Moonage Daydream shows little of his life pre-‘Ziggy’. A maximalist experience surely created for the dedicated aficionado, it fills in the gaps employing Bowie’s own narration, immersing IMAX audiences into the creative world of his sublime spectacle and endless image montages. 

Archive footage of Bowie’s illusive, alien persona onstage is so visceral yet mysterious, it’s easy to see how fans could strangely relate, projecting themselves onto his silk kimono minidress, bleach eyebrows and flaming red mullet. An awareness of this is immediately apparent, as Bowie declares the likes of himself, John Lennon and Bob Dylan are simply imaginatory to the audience who mould them: “We don’t exist.” Whilst his rejection of gender norms is implicit, this seems to have been largely dodged in other documentaries. Here queerness is presented as a major aspect of the performer’s oeuvre; his discussion about being openly bisexual with a gawping television interviewer is powerful in its place at the beginning of the film. I could have watched much more of Ziggy crooning “All The Young Dudes” and harmonica-harmonising to the Beatles’ “Love Me Do,” but just as he shocked fans in his premature final appearance with the Spiders from Mars in 1973, we switch to his newfound home in Los Angeles, which he summarises by comparing himself to a fly that has fallen into his carton of milk. “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area,” he deliberates out loud. The effects of his bizarre diet of exclusively cocaine, peppers and milk at this time have their unspoken place in these scenes, and we see a man struggling with his identity and purpose. 

Bowie onstage as Ziggy Stardust, with a painted face, red mullet and geometric patterned jumpsuit, in front of a drumset that says 'The Spiders'
Image courtesy of Riverside Studios

Jack Kerouac once mused, “I never felt sadder in my life. LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American Cities.” The film recounts how his 1957 novel On the Road was a great influence on Bowie from the moment his older half-brother Terry gifted it to him. His fleeing from the US to Europe, then, can be characterised not only as an attempt to flee from addiction but also the overly saturated artistic scene which put him at a loss for new lyrical ideas. Berlin spawned not only some of his best musical work, a trilogy of albums composed with ambient genius Brian Eno, but also many portraits and lithographs. These consisted of neo-expressionist paintings of people he saw, lone figures who had escaped from east to west Berlin, their separated families sometimes literally depicted inside their heads.  

Director Brett Morgan has confessed that deep diving into the vast archives to make the documentary almost killed him, but also speaks of its cathartic and nurturing experience, following his heart attack at the start of this project in 2017. “It was from that position that I began to go through all of his media … his musings on mortality, on ageing, the way he approached life…” Bowie’s comeback following a solitary retreat from the stage is defined as something he then lost himself in, no longer making music he wanted to listen to, but music purely for his audience. Despite this, his enduring fascination with Japan and travels to Southeast Asia produced a clear need to write songs with an overt message. Having previously used William S. Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ method to ensure his songs could never be interpreted, the likes of 1983’s “Let’s Dance” instead encapsulates this newfound positivity. It’s no wonder “Modern Love” is the track unhinged and existential characters infamously run to in the movies, from Denis Lavant’s theatrical leaps in Leo Carax’s 1986 Mauvais Sang, to Greta Gerwig’s black and white ballet gallop across New York streets in Frances Ha

David Bowie lies on a grey bed barefoot, with a tartan red shirt and grey trouers. On the wall huge above him, is his portrait of a man with a red and orange face, with furrowed brows and big eyes. He is Yukio Mishima, a Japanese author.
A young Bowie asleep in front of his painting of Japanese author Yukio Mishima.
Image courtesy of Brian Duffy

Trial, errors and time are recurring themes in this fragmentary and intimate journey. Bowie declares a need to get the most out of every day with his art, constantly expanding his horizons: “I’ve done and do everything I’ve ever wanted.” He also admits to never having previously wanted to show the public himself, or to act without an onstage persona. Whilst TV show hosts debate whether this ‘change’ itself is just another character, Bowie seems increasingly secure in whatever he turns his hands to in this next phase. His expansive creative process in other art forms is also heralded throughout, with unseen footage of his Broadway debut portrayal as the Elephant Man in 1980. Just like its charismatic workhorse subject, Moonage Daydeam constantly reinvents itself, presenting Bowie’s work in a philosophical way that feels inspiring and engrossing. Hardcore fans will be satiated by fresh footage and a newly mixed cosmic soundtrack, whilst those who know less about the man and themyth can simply sit back and marvel at the spectacle, directed by  someone who admits he doesn’t even like watching movies, but loves “going to the cinema!” 

Bowie in black and white, doing the cut up method of songwriting, in a music studio. Next to him is a tambourine, beer bottle and ashtray. He wears a long leather coat and flowing trousers.
Bowie using the cut-up method to write “Diamond Dogs” in 1973.
Image courtesy of Roger Bamber