Some psychedelic, “psychotronic” cinema is great because it tests the boundaries of filmmaking as an ever-evolving artform, especially cinema’s unique ability to simulate the elusive, illogical imagery of dreams. Most of it is just a cheap way to babysit stoners. The new David Bowie “documentary” Moonage Daydream falls firmly in that latter category, earning a prize spot among the stoner-babysitter Classic Rock “classics”: Heavy Metal, The Song Remains the Same, lava lamps, Tommy, blacklight posters, the iTunes visualizer, The Wall, etc. It’s more of a scrapbook in motion than a proper essay film or documentary. Or maybe it’s just the Bowie version of your local planetarium’s Pink Floyd laser show. I do think there’s some cinematic value to that kind of stoner-pacifying psychedelic filmmaking, but the rewards are pretty limited. It paints a beautiful backdrop for your couch-potato bong rips, then gently puts you to sleep so you can’t get into too much trouble while you’re high.
Do not watch Moonage Daydream if you want to learn about the life, loves, and art of glam rock musician David Bowie. Do watch Moonage Daydream if you want to hear Bowie intone Headspace app meditations about life, love, and art over a randomized slideshow medley of concert footage & movie clips. Some of the sci-fi pulp ephemera used to illustrate his lyrical mumblings make sense as mood setting for Bowie’s “alien rockstar” period as his Ziggy Stardust persona. However, as the never-before-seen concert footage is continually interrupted by selections as disparate as Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising and Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space long after Bowie’s moved on to more grounded, coked-out material, it’s clear those clips are only included to keep the otherwise repetitive imagery freshly varied. Bowie’s reputation as a cineaste is cited as an excuse to roll vintage sci-fi footage that looks cool alongside his music; the use of William S. Burroughs’s “cut-ups” technique in his writing is cited as an excuse to randomly quote him at his most abstractly philosophical, with no discernible reasoning behind arrangement or progression. The whole film is about as carefully planned out as the improvised “liquid light shows” projected behind Jefferson Airplane performances in the 1960s. It’s a Bowie-themed novelty kaleidoscope, a psychedelic “action painting” with a glam rock soundtrack.
This is not the approach to Bowie’s life, art, and legacy that I expected from documentarian Brett Morgen. His earlier film Montage of Heck deliberately de-mystified the ethereal rock star persona of Kurt Cobain, stripping away the self-destructive romance of his memory to show how sad & dysfunctional his drug addiction made his life on a practical, real-world level. By contrast, this montage of glam is only interested in David Bowie as an otherworldly prophet with an uncanny ability to tap into the collective unconscious through his far-out music; it’s more interested in his stage personae than his life as a real-world human being. That approach isn’t fundamentally wrong, but it leaves little room for tracking Bowie’s progress as an artist beyond noting his relocations from London to Los Angeles to Berlin to beyond. Since Morgen was given full blessing and access by the Bowie estate, he finds some freshly striking imagery to mine for his psychedelic freak-out montage; I was particularly tickled to see Ziggy Stardust perform at length in a slutty little kimono, conscious of his newfound status as a sex symbol. There’s just only so much Morgen can achieve by focusing on Bowie’s finely curated surface aesthetics, and it’s not quite enough to sustain 135 minutes of continuous abstraction . . . unless it’s used as background enhancement for other, more illicit hobbies.