Bowie is an unassailable force in the world of music, but until now, nobody has managed to sum up his work in a manner befitting his genius. Moonage Daydream, a staggeringly kaleidoscopic, dreamlike exploration of Bowie’s life and work, is now screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Determined to figure out its secrets, I sat down with writer, director and editor, Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck, Jane, The Kid Stays in the Picture) to dive into his latest work.
BRETT: Hello, Paul!
PAUL: Hi Brett! How you doing?
BRETT: I’m doing great, and before we get started… I have to share with you that Basic Instinct… is one of my favourite movies. I am SO excited that we’re talking. I was shocked to find you’re still a journalist! But I understand your career might have stalled out a little bit.
No. I was like… Paul Verhoeven is doing interviews now?
PAUL: Yeah, I had to age backwards and get rid of my Dutch citizenship to make it work. Anyway! Thanks so much for chatting today, mate. This film… I saw it a few days ago. I’m a real big Terence Malick fan, and this was like Bowie’s Tree of Life. It was just the most unmoored-from-time, hallucinatory treat, and I just wanted to say thank you.
BRETT: I… by the way, any filmmaker would be flattered, obviously, with a Terry Malick reference, but I cannot tell you how much I drew inspiration from Tree of Life making this. A movie that I didn’t really appreciate until I was making this, and really felt that it was possibly as close to what I was trying to do… there;’s an audacity about Tree of Life. Trying to make a film about the mystery of life is, uh… is quite ambitious! And thank you for that.
PAUL: Oh, you’re welcome. There’s a line in Moonage Daydream, where Bowie says something along the lines of “I really enjoyed this life, I’d like to live it again”. Has he zipped back in time to live his life over again? Have you imposed some kind of wonderful meta-narrative over things?
BRETT: Oh, well he did it! In his music video for Blackstar, and in the lyrics, it’s about transitioning from one king to another. One king departs, and another is crowned. But I used to be very cohesive and dogmatic in the way I created art – and when I was working on Moonage, I was deeply embedded in David’s philosophies of art and creation. And one of the things I took from it was… well, David rebelled against virtuosity. And when he felt he had mastered a form, he moved to the next. And I think that he would say there are no mistakes, just happy accidents.
And for someone who has spent his entire career trying to construct the “perfect” film… I found that to be incredibly liberating! There were things I did in this film that I thought would be contradictory to the covenant I was unfolding for the audience, but every time I tried to cleanse that, I would ask myself… why? What, am I breaking a rule that I set up? Like, the rules are meant to be broken!
I actually did a test screening of the film, and one of the questions on the survey was… is the film too short, just right, or too long? And I told them, you should get rid of this question. I made the fuckin’ film! It’s a long film! Anyone who says the film is short is kinda crazy, right? It’s designed to feel like a meal. It’s hopefully not TOO long, but it’s a film that attempts to illuminate the career and mysteries of David Bowie, so it had to take its own course.
PAUL: Yeah! I remember hearing that there’s electricity running around your brain after you die and that from the inside, those few minutes could feel like an entirety, where time didn’t have meaning anymore. I felt similarly lost during Moonage Daydream – were you similarly lost spending all that time looking through his archives? What happened to your brain during that period?
BRETT: Well, the two years I spent ingesting Bowie was, without question, the two most enjoyable years of my career. Because I didn’t have to do anything, other than open myself to what I was experiencing. I didn’t have to write; I didn’t have the pressure of figuring out how to cut this – I just thought, nah, I’ll think about that once I’m done looking.
So for two years, I was, you know, ostensibly paid to go to work to listen to and watch unreleased David Bowie material! It was… look, I was not a big fan. I was a casual fan! And by the time I was finished… I was, you know, die-hard. I just have such tremendous respect for him as an artist, which I always had, but as a person. That, for me, was the most truly revealing and illuminating part of my journey.
PAUL: I keep thinking about what David would think if he saw this. I mean, what would it be like, for you, to look back on your life, as filtered through the prism of another creative’s mind? Was that a difficult thing for you, trying to sum a person up through cinema?
BRETT: No, but that’s because I really feel like I wasn’t trying to make a biography on David Jones, or David Bowie, but on the persona of Bowie.
PAUL: The character.
BRETT: Right. That was quite liberating. So I didn’t feel the onus to create the definitive Bowie film. I entered this going, look, you can’t do the definitive Bowie film. That’s a fool’s errand. So I couldn’t define Bowie, but I could help the audience experience Bowie. And I made the film with a very clear mind that, you know, this same material will be used by other filmmakers in the future, and they’ll all make their own interpretations and discover whatever they can unearth, in this archive, through this material.
For me, I came to this film at a very challenging moment in my life. I, uh… had a heart attack right as the film was starting. It was severe… I flatlined and was in a coma for a week, and, uh… obviously, that is a life-changing experience. And from that vantage point, I began to ingest and immerse myself in the Bowie archives, and… so the film that exists today is very much about… my resurrection, and me learning how to… well, it was basically my therapy and my recovery.
So I was unbelievably receptive to David’s attitudes and philosophies on aging, life, and making the most of every moment. So it’s very unlikely the film would have taken that path, had I not experienced the trauma of the heart attack.
PAUL: That is… incredible. Oh my god. I’m also curious about a specific thread you worked through the film, in regards to… well, going commercial, selling out, so to speak. I found it so refreshing the way you weaved in the narrative of David returning to America, and in a very Sullivan’s Travels way, just making music to make himself and others happy. Just a really positive process. Did you try and apply that degree of optimism? And where did you hit the line between art and entertainment with Moonage Daydream?
BRETT: Well early on, while writing, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocket Man came out in quick succession. I saw Bohemian fourteen times in fifteen days. And look, I don’t think it’s a great movie – very cliche-ridden script, right? But hearing that music in Dolby Atmos was exhilarating to me. And when we saw the numbers going up to a billion dollars, I went… we’re sitting on David Bowie. And we could make any David Bowie film we wanted to make.
So… at that point, I’m like, wait a second! I’m still writing, I can go in any direction. So I fly back to New York, and I sit down with his estate. And I say… look. There’s a way to make this film where it’s a bit like Bohemian. It’s a singalong, it’s incredibly accessible. Or, we can make the film more like a Bowie track: which can be pop, but is more cryptic and mysterious, and is more challenging to earth. And they looked at me and said… ‘hey, that’s your problem.’ But really, the answer is in the question, right? You can’t do Bohemian Rhapsody to David, because it wouldn’t be true to David. It’d run the risk of being a sort of bastardization.
What I felt was the way to make the most pop and accessible and authentic Bowie film would be to make a film that was fashioned like a Bowie song – one that is full of mystery, and invites you to project yourself onto it – that is sublime and moves you, but at times you’re not sure why. And oftentimes, it’s inviting you to reflect back on your own life and to extract your own meaning. And so I felt that if I followed that methodology, we’d arrive at something that… look, it won’t do a billion dollars, but that would be the only true way to approach Bowie.
PAUL: Well… I think you nailed it. And I should know. I directed Basic Instinct.
BRETT: (A full five seconds of hearty laughter ensue).
MOONAGE DAYDREAM is released widely in cinemas around Australia on September 15th