Filmmaker Brett Morgen describes how dazzling sound and vision can personify the experience of being David Bowie.
In 1972, before the release of his fifth studio album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie was quizzed about it by photographer Mick Rock.
“I hear you have this album coming out and it’s a space age opera. What’s it all about?” asked Rock. “It’s a gas,” Bowie replied. “I just say ‘space’ and ‘ray gun’ a few times and the audience will project the rest.”
That conversation, relayed by Rock (who died in 2021) to filmmaker Brett Morgen provided the template for Morgen’s new documentary about the artist and icon.
“I tried to design the film in a way that invites everyone to find their own Bowie,” Morgen explained on stage at the Sheffield Documentary Festival. “The less you put out there the more you invite the audience to project their own ideas on it. In the film I try to do that by withholding biographical information. By just giving you broad strokes, it allows you to more closely identify with the material.”
A David Bowie ‘experience’
Moonage Daydream is not your conventional music doc. Bowie narrates the film, with Morgen splicing together interview clips so that Bowie is basically ruminating on who and where he was at any given moment. If Bowie doesn’t reference the time or place you won’t be the wiser since none of it is captioned. It skips over whole periods. There’s no talk of record deals. It is not so much about Bowie as a personification of him.
“Bowie was not conceived to be a biography but an experience,” Morgen says. “It’s getting rid of the plot and going straight to the meat of the matter.”
Reviewers have gone wild for it: “The movie is two hours and 20 minutes of sound and fury: a kaleidoscopic head-trip meditation on rock’s shape-shifting astronaut of identity,” raves Variety.
Morgen browsed five million assets from the Bowie estate over the five years of making the film. This includes concert footage from Earl’s Court, London, in 1978 and material from Bowie’s 1975 Soul tour, apparently never-seen-before.
Chasing that ‘kooky’ Ziggy effect
Morgen created a database of references and inspirations to sprinkle where ever he didn’t have another clip to visualise what he wanted to convey. Film clips peppered throughout the film are from Metropolis, Charlie Chaplin, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, Ivan the Terrible, Nosferatu and 2001: A Space Odyssey among others.
“These are all Bowie influences but you don’t need to know that. If you know then you get to create this whole added layer of meaning to the story. If you don’t know, it’s just pop and cool imagery.”
Take for example the sequence in the film of Bowie performing Moonage Daydream. The foundation track was from the 1979 concert film by D. A. Pennebaker, augmented with still images provided by Rock and accentuated by “kooky” sound design including machine guns and helicopters synchronised with the music to build the Ziggy effect. Morgen throws in some sci-fi film clips and animation “for choice effect” and, as if that’s not enough, the concert and still images are psychedelically colourised.
“If footage exists for something you are only going to reproduce a document. Where is the artistry in that?” - Brett Morgen
Morgen’s own first experience of Bowie was the Pennebaker film, which he saw in 1984 aged 16. His memory of it was “red, grainy and out of focus” he says. “It is an incredible documentary of a person in David Bowie performing the role of Ziggy Stardust but to me it wasn’t the experience of Ziggy. In my mind Ziggy was this rainbow-coloured sparkle and so what I was trying to do in my film was to construct Ziggy.”
This explains the violent colourisation, painting over the Pennebaker footage and the still photos. Morgen says, “The intent was to leave them black and white, so you’d know there was a document of the moment. But as soon as I saw the first cut, I knew we needed to add some complementary colour to fill out the palette.”
Subjectivity achieves higher truth
Morgen became interested in documentaries in the late ‘80s after studying ethnographic filmmaking and the debate, raging at the time, about whether such ‘documents’ about remote people in the Amazon or in Africa could ever be objective.
One of them, a 1971 feature doc on Sudanese tribe the Nuer bucked the trend by presenting its subject as a series of visual images reducing the voiceover to a minimum.
“This film achieves a higher truth because it is not objective,” Morgen says. “It is an interpretation of this culture, but a sound and picture montage gave me a better sense of this culture than anything objective could have done. That is where this idea of embracing the subjective came from - that with it you can create a more elevated truth.”
It’s a technique he has been honing over several films. For The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002), a biopic about The Godfather producer Robert Evans, he barely made a straightforward cut in the entire film. Much of it was impressionistic because either he didn’t have archive footage or he chose to imagine the story differently
For Cobain: Montage of Heck made in 2015 about the Nirvana front man he also had little footage to go on. Morgen sold the film apparently on a promise by Courtney Love of being able to use Cobain’s “incredible, prolific” artwork. What he found in storage was just four small boxes and for a moment he was terrified he would let his financiers down.
“There were 57 cassette tapes in the boxes and one had ‘Montage of Heck’ written on it. It had songs, Kurt talking, special effects, The Brady Bunch. It was wild; a shock right into his brain. I knew that this is how you make the movie.”
There’s artistry in the mundane
Other tapes had random recordings Kurt had made even of the most mundane stuff like of him watching TV, that other people might pass over.
“I’d listen real intently and one day I hear a phone ring and Kurt walking across the room. He picks up the phone saying ‘She’s not home right now. Ok. Bye.’ That to me was more valuable than any piece of filmic archive I could have had. Part of the narrative at that time was how his girlfriend wasn’t supporting him. To me, it painted this portrait that inspired a sequence in the film.”
The same sequence – which is animated - also features calculations of monthly expenses that Morgen found in a scrap book. Again, it seems inconsequential but to Morgen this was treasure.
“That which you don’t have is a blessing not a curse,” he says. “If footage exists for something you are only going to reproduce a document. Where is the artistry in that? We had nothing but a tiny morsel and we filled it out.”
Maintaining a singular vision
Mick Jagger apparently wanted cuts to Crossfire Hurricane (2012), Morgen’s collage of The Rolling Stones’ first two decades but Morgen threatened to withdraw his director credit from the film and won the argument.
In the case of Moonage, the Bowie estate gave the filmmaker final cut.
“They said, ‘David is not here to approve this’. It’s never going to be David Bowie on David Bowie, so it needs to be Brett Morgen on David Bowie. That was liberating. I believe all forms of biography is autobiography. If each of us do a film about Bowie we will all make different films and all will be a reflection of our different sensibilities and tastes.”
He has directed a couple of fiction pilots including Runaways for Hulu but clearly found the experience wanting. “We’d spend an hour setting up a shot just to get from A to B. There was no poetry. I was bored. I would totally check out.”
On the other hand, what excites him about dramatic narrative is montage - “the purist expression of cinema because you can’t reproduce it outside of cinema,” he says. “The closest you get is the haiku. When you have sound and vision and you can feel an expression that is what excites me.”
The opening of Apocalypse Now (the helicopter blades, the ceiling fan) “got to me a place where I wanted to discard narrative and just let the experience wash over me.”
‘I am a bit obsessive’
Morgen, who also edited and wrote Moonage, spent four years working essentially in isolation (with no producer either) until he began to collaborate with animators and the sound team.
“After being alone with the material for so long, it was cathartic to begin to work with other people,” he admits. “But I am a bit obsessive and want to be present with everything that happens.”
“My movies are archival so I have three tools – montage, colour and sound, plus occasionally, animation.” - Brett Morgen
All 450 hours of colour correction were supervised by him. He supervised every day on the mixing stage. He was present for every pre-dub and spotting session.
“One thing that shook me to my core was that Company 3 were trying to schedule unsupervised grading sessions. They said it was the first time they’d ever done a job where not an hour was unsupervised. That seems crazy to me. Everything up to this point in the process is an audition. The offline is not your finished project. Editorial is where your film comes to life.
“I am pretty set on what I want to achieve with sound,” he adds. “The sound design on my films is never straight foley work. It’s usually very psychological. I can’t just give them the film and think they are going to come up with machine guns. It is painting and I need to paint it with them.”
He understands film is a collaborative medium, but insists he has to work in a more singular way. “My movies are archival so I have three tools – montage, colour and sound plus, occasionally, animation. I don’t have wardrobe, production, design or a myriad of other tools that dramatic filmmakers use to communicate their interpretation of the subject.
“I am very obtuse. I feel it’s my job to get my vision on screen. I am not a good editor, I stumble, but I like the autonomy and if something talks to me, I use it.”
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend
‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ goes the famous line from classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The Kid, Crossfire Hurricane, Montage of Heck and Moonage Daydream, were conceived as mythologies, he says. “They are all meant to be campfire stories. Using archive but trying to dress them up and create them in the spirit of the subject.”
Making Jane, his 2017 film about the life of renowned primatology scientist, Jane Goodall, Morgen found it impossible to condense everything from perfectly good print biographies.
“When you break down a 90-minute script into information, you’ve maybe got a 25 pager of someone’s life. So, to me, cinema is not a good medium for biography. But it can be a good medium for everything other than that.”
That said, Moonage Daydream does flow with approximate chronology. “The opening is experiential but I couldn’t sustain it,” he admits. “So, there is a narrative ripped out of the pages of [mythology theorist] Joseph Campbell. Bowie is a hero with a thousand faces, with the difference being that Bowie is creating his own challenges for himself. Brian Eno becomes Yoda.”
He adds, “It messed with me a bit, but I don’t think it was a failure of mine. Why beat myself up about breaking my own rules when the whole point of Bowie is to say: ‘it’s okay if it’s a bit messy. Embrace the mistakes.’”
In Werner Herzog’s latest doc. The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft, Herzog tells the audience upfront that if they want to know about the subject (volcanology) they should seek out one of a dozen books because he is not going to spoon feed you.
“I wish I had the audacity to do that,” Morgen says in awe.
Moonage Daydream releases in cinemas worldwide on September 16th 2022. For more interviews and insight into the making of the best TV and film productions, check out IBC365’s Behind The Scenes archive.