• Interviews

Brett Morgen, director of “Moonage Daydream”, a David Bowie Documentary

“Ever since I was 16, I was determined to have the greatest adventure any one person could have.”

Those words were spoken by David Bowie, one of the greatest artists of our time, and were a declaration he proved true, as shown in the groundbreaking documentary Moonage Daydream, by writer and director Brett Morgen, due for release worldwide on Imax in September. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker, whose credits include The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015), is at the Melbourne Film Festival to witness the reaction to his labor of love of sell-out screenings. Morgen sat down with us to perform the difficult task of trying to explain what we will experience in his ground-breaking film, worthy of a ground-breaking artist.

Did you ever see Bowie perform?

I saw him perform during the Serious Moonlight tour when I was probably 14. I have very little memory of it, other than the fact that I think at that point, I had thought he kind of sold out. But I was a little snobby 14-year-old into punk and didn’t love it. I met him in 2007 to discuss working on a hybrid non-fiction film that didn’t go anywhere, but my appreciation for David and all things David went from zero to a hundred once I started to immerse myself in this film.

How would you describe this documentary?

I had a very difficult time pitching the film because what I was essentially pitching was an experience. It wasn’t a story in the traditional sense, even though the film does have a story. I was essentially pitching a new point of media and it wasn’t until I saw the David Bowie Is exhibit (a touring exhibit displaying history and artifacts about the music, films, tours, and art of the English singer) that I felt I was able to properly communicate what it was I was going after. I remember after seeing it in Brooklyn, I called up David’s executor when I walked out and I said, “I know you’ve been having a hard time understanding what I’m going after, but I just saw the David Bowie Is exhibit and I felt like I was walking into my film.” 


How does this compare to the other biographical documentaries you’ve made?

When I finished Montage of Heck in 2015, I felt that I had explored pretty much what there was to explore with biographical documentary. The part of filmmaking that excited me was the texture and the immersive component of cinema – not documentary or fiction movies, but actual cinema and the cinematic experience. I wanted to reconfigure that space to allow us to have an intimate and sublime experience with our favorite artists. One that eschewed facts and talking heads for that which perhaps is better to be experienced than explained. And so that was the kind of head space I was at when I approached the Bowie estate.

This documentary also took place at a time when you were suffering a personal health crisis. How did that impact the final film, if at all?

I had a heart attack and flatlined at the very beginning of the project. It wasn’t because I was working so hard on the Bowie film that it created that health scare, but everything that had come before it. Where it plays a role in this film is that I had a heart attack for a reason. My life was out of control, I had no balance, I was a workaholic with very unhealthy habits that led to a heart attack at 47 years old. But it was at that point that I was at the very early stages of absorbing and ingesting all of the media for Bowie and as I’m learning how to refocus and balance my life, I am exploring David’s work. And what I didn’t know before I started the film was, while I knew he was an amazing artist, I didn’t realize or understand how profound his philosophy towards life was, and how much impact it would have in my own evolution as an adult. I knew the role he played when I was a teenager, transitioning me from childhood to teenage years, but I didn’t know, at 47 that he would help transition me from being a man-child to an adult, and present me with a kind of guide to how to live a balanced, satisfied and fulfilled life in an age of chaos and fragmentation in which we have an enormous amount of stress and anxiety that our ancestors weren’t dealing with.

What surprised you the most about him after five years of making the film?

The one thing that surprised me more than anything was how measured his approach to life was – how he designed his life to provide him with the most creative stimuli and opportunities. And again, I don’t think I was aware of how sage he was in philosophies toward life.


What are you hoping this documentary can provide for the next generation, who may not be as familiar with Bowie?

Of all the heritage and nostalgia acts that continue to tour and continue to maintain a certain currency and relevancy, I don’t believe there’s an artist from this era in popular music that is as relatable today, in the world that we are living today, as David Bowie. I think that his ideas of gender fluidity, his ideas on race and culture and art are all so mirroring the world we’re in today. And my hope is that when young people experience the film, it doesn’t feel like a film about their grandparents but a film about someone that they can deeply understand and relate to.

Do you see any common ground he shares with other great artists you’ve documented?

The great ones don’t create because they want to, they create because they have to. Kurt and David cannot be more different, nor could the films be more different. But I think if you liked Montage of Heck, you will love Moonage Daydream. But my wife said it best, that Montage of Heck and Moonage Daydream are like two opposite sides of the same coin. One is almost entirely about pain and the other is almost entirely about life. And one is about a man who wants to embrace every second that he can, and the other is someone who wants to silence it, and that’s painful. But the one comment between both of them is they never put their pens down. That every interaction in a way became an opportunity.

What do you think David leaves behind as his legacy?

Honestly, he wasn’t the greatest singer, he wasn’t the greatest dancer, he wasn’t the greatest actor, but what makes him possibly the greatest entertainer of my lifetime is his fearlessness. He rebelled against virtuosity. When he thought he mastered something, he moved on. So, I think David really had an appreciation for life and just understood how creativity was a passport to a fulfilling and adventurous life.