“Since I was 16 years old,” David Bowie’s disembodied voice says at one point in the new film. Moon Age Reverie, “I was determined to have the greatest adventure anyone could have.” While part documentary, part concert film, part full-length music video, director Brett Morgen’s project conveys the contours of this incredible journey, it ultimately adds little to our understanding of a towering artist.
Morgen’s previous films, including The boy stays in the picture (about maverick Hollywood producer Robert Evans) and Kurt CobainMontage Heck—have shown their interest in exploiting the conventional form of the documentary. Before Bowie’s death in 2016, she had met with the singer to pitch an idea for a kind of alternate reality biopic; While Bowie didn’t take the bait at the time, after his death, his representative approached the director and granted him unprecedented access to the artist’s vast archives. Morgen spent the next five years sifting through more than five million assets, including never-before-seen 16mm and 35mm paintings, drawings, recordings, photographs, film, diaries, and clips of performances.
The choice you made for Moon Age Reverie, for better or worse, was to avoid a linear narrative, to create something that is ultimately about experiencing David Bowie rather than explaining it. The film is an immersive, sometimes aggressive event, a kaleidoscopic time-jumping journey through Bowie’s life and work. Apart from the occasional questions from a TV host (some thoughtful, some ridiculous, but Bowie is unfailingly polite and charming regardless), we only hear from the singer himself, no talking heads, none from his collaborators, no comment of any kind. . Not a single album title is mentioned, let alone anything from the wild range of Bowie’s biography, from the disturbing (his flirtations with fascism and, no doubt, related, his drug abuse) to the transcendent (the incredible revival of his later years). , culminating in the brilliant Black Star album coming out the same weekend he died).
It is easy to understand this decision; there’s a shelf full of Bowie books and a number of more blunt documentaries, including a trilogy of BBC films directed by Francis Whately. But knowing what you want to avoid is different from knowing what you want to say, and by rejecting any kind of context, Morgen’s meditation on this complicated and monumental creator (Bowie was recently named Britain’s most influential artist, in any medium, not only in music). —of the last 50 years) is largely one-dimensional and repetitive.
No doubt, Moon Age Reverie it is visually and sonically impressive. The footage, whether on stage or private and intimate, is always riveting. At its best, the seamless high-speed cut offers its own kind of insights, as we bounce between Bowie at a concert in full Ziggy Stardust attire, a gender-swapping alien brought to life, and shots of him in the most worldly of scenarios, queuing at airport customs. The pacing often feels frenetic, though some recurring shots and scenes (Bowie painting in his studio, riding a neon-lit escalator, gliding down rivers and Asian side streets) offer a chance to catch your breath. (This may also be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen; at the screening I attended, the person next to me literally covered their ears multiple times.)
Bowie describes his work as “a pudding of new ideas – we’re inventing the 21st century”.St. century in 1971”, and this sense of ambition, improvisation and vision is at the heart of the film. He refers to his “inexhaustible supply of extracurricular thoughts”. Of course, it was Bowie’s commitment to constant creative change and perpetual reinvention that was his most important contribution to pop music and culture in general. But this is also the only thing we all know about Bowie, and by presenting everything in the subject’s own voice, Morgen gets stuck on this one idea. We listen to Bowie reflect on his need to evolve again and again, without any other perspective that can illustrate what was so radical about this attitude, how it really manifested itself in his work, why he took certain directions. Not only does it cushion the impact, but over the course of 140 minutes, it risks becoming boring, something Bowie could never be accused of.
In some places Moon Age Reverie it slows down enough to explore a specific moment in Bowie’s life, and things come into focus. Speaking of his childhood, he talks about his distant relationship with his mother and his fear of following his half brother, whom he idolized, into mental illness. He talks about hitting a creative wall and wanting to invent a “new musical language,” which leads to his moving to Berlin and the release of three groundbreaking albums in the ’70s. A simple slideshow of Bowie’s paintings is a poignant moment, a calm insight into his work that purposefully uses the archive to reflect on one aspect of his enormous achievements.
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But after these glimpses, Morgen goes back to frantically stacking and layering material, often looking like she’s just trying to cram in as much material as possible; Bowie talking about Bowie singing about added sound effects. (Insertion of fragments of science fiction films in a fascinating performance of Moon Age ReverieThe title track is so obvious it’s a bit insulting.) One of the themes of the film is Bowie’s use of his art as a way of searching for himself: “I’ve never been sure of my own personality,” he says, pointing elsewhere. that “I’ve always dealt with isolation, in everything I write”, but nothing is revealed by simply piling up sounds and images, no sense of how this artist’s intention was different from any other artist or why the fans screaming and crying they responded to him so powerfully.
Yet even when it’s unnecessarily interrupted, the performance footage is what ultimately matters, and what stays with you after the film’s two-plus hour running time expires. Bowie was never less than fascinating on stage; one of the most striking scenes is a montage of him dancing to a cut of “Let’s Dance,” and it’s a reminder of how unappreciated pure movement was from him. Some songs are allowed to drag on, a slow version of “Heroes,” a punchy rendition of “Hallo Spaceboy” from the 1995 tour with Nine Inch Nails, and time stands still.
Especially with improved video and audio quality (the music was remixed by Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti), this stuff is simply irresistible. But as dazzling and observable as it is, Moon Age Reverie necessary to adjust your focus or open your lens – the journey it offers is too familiar for longtime fans, too vague for Bowie newcomers. And as experimental and exploratory as he was, David Bowie always had a keen sense of who he was looking at. “Each artist,” he said, “is a product of the public’s imagination.”
Author and music journalist Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and Spin magazines, and hosts the daily music talk show “Feedback” on SiriusXM.
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