‘Moonage Daydream’ examines what made David Bowie tick



Rated PG-13. At Landmark Kendall Square.

Grade A-

David Bowie was rock ’n’ roll’s most adroit shape-shifter. At first, he was just an unusual-looking boy from Brixton, who, along with a cousin, “danced like elves” to 1950s American rock music. In “Moonage Daydream,” a besotted fever dream of a non-fiction film about Bowie, written, directed, produced and edited by American filmmaker Brett Morgen (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”), young Bowie is treated by the music media like a freak. With his spangly catsuits, dyed red hair, enormous stacked heels, apparent bisexuality, androgynous appearance and frequent transvestism, Bowie took Jagger to the tenth power.

“Moonage Daydream” is not so much a biographical non-fiction film as it is an immersion into the quintessence of Bowie. With its outlandish visuals, musical chops, archival images of Bowie concerts, filmed interviews with him, including two by Dick Cavett, clips from “Metropolis,” “Nosferatu,” “Onibaba,” “Snow White,” “The Seventh Seal” and others, “Moonage Daydream” becomes a non-fiction fantasia on the subject of David Bowie (born David Jones, he took his stage name from the American frontiersman famous for his knife). Early suit-and-tie-clad British interviewers are obsessed with Bowie’s dress, make-up and sexuality. Seated together with them, Bowie does indeed recall the title “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

You will hear little, if nothing about Bowie’s first wife Angela Barnett and only a bit more about final wife, the Somali supermodel Iman. We meet weeping fans, lining up for his concerts and lingering by the stage door.

In a voice-over, Bowie discusses his older, maternal half brother Terry Burns, who suffered from schizophrenia, introduced him to Beat poetry, John Coltrane and the occult, and died young, leaving a lasting impression. To his fans, Bowie is the high priest of sexual mutability, a “space oddity,” who writes a song called “Space Oddity,” which becomes a smash hit. Young Bowie often performs on stage wearing a short tunic without pants, a feathered boa around his neck.

We hear him talk about Buddhism, how he forged a rock ’n’ roll messiah stage identity and employed elements of Kabuki theater in his act. Bowie evolves from Ziggy Stardust to a Diamond Dog to the Serious Moonlight crooner in a white suit and bleached blonde hair. When he isn’t engaged in music, Bowie paints, using a Pollock-like drip technique, sculpts and makes experimental videos, dressed like a clown in one.

Bowie also acts in films. But director Morgen eschews such works as the aforementioned “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), “The Hunger” (1983), “Labyrinth” (1986) and “The Prestige” (2006) and instead overdoses on Nagisa Oshima’s opaque and fetishistic “Merry Christmas Mister Lawrence” (1983). As intoxicating as Morgen’s conjuring of David Bowie is, it is full of odd choices. Bowie feels like he might go mad as his brother did. He speaks eloquently about art as therapy. Was he a frustrated ballet dancer?

Bowie, who detests L.A., moves to West Berlin for a time. Like Irishman James Joyce, Bowie, who is of Irish descent, yearns to create a “new language.” He listens to music and spontaneously sings into a mike in search of lyrics, and we hear the line, “Blue, blue, electric blue,” from the 1977 song “Sound and Vision” of the album “Low.” That Bowie had endured years of drug addiction is not really addressed. Bowie allows that he has used himself as his canvas. As he once wrote, “I am a DJ/I am what I play.” In the end, he is a jeweled skull.

“Moonage Daydream” contains brief nudity, sexuality, profanity and smoking.

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