The first thing to know before seeing “Moonage Daydream,” Brett Morgen’s dazzling, exhaustive and exhausting memoir of David Bowie’s life and career, is that it assumes the viewer already knows a lot about the subject — his relevance, his influence, the brilliance of so much of his music, and the basics of his personal history. Like another recent historical film about an oft-trodden subject — Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” — it eschews the standard, chronological, done-to-death “Behind the Music”-style template that has become a predictable default for music documentaries and finds a dramatically different way to tell the story.
In the case of “Moonage Daydream” — the significance of the second word of the title in this impressionistic film cannot be overemphasized — that different way is to let the man himself do all of the talking: Literally the only voiceovers heard in this 135- minute-long film are from Bowie (presenting real or conveniently fictionalized accounts of his life and work) and various interviewers. While that makes for an unusually free-form approach to structuring a documentary (and was enormously challenging for Morgen, who worked on the film for over four years and suffered a heart attack while doing it), in many ways it’s freeing: Instead of a rigid timeline or forced, overarching theme dictating the narrative, Bowie’s words do.
There is little preamble; you’re plunged straight into the early 1970s and “Ziggy Stardust.” And although the film sprawls all over Bowie’s peak years (primarily his first decade of superstardom, which was of course his musical peak as well), songs and moments from other eras swoon in like characters from a dream.
The film doesn’t try to be completist: Bowie’s life story has been told ad nauseum, so huge chunks of it are left out. His first and last 20 years are dealt with briefly, although revealingly; there are few if any glimpses of his first wife, Angela (who exerted an enormous and under-acknowledged influence on the Ziggy era) or his children, although his older brother Terry, probably the greatest influence on the young Bowie, gets a larger than usual viewing. But there are also none of the cliched, overworn anecdotes from former collaborators, paramours, managers and hangers-on — and because Bowie himself died more than six years ago, he’s already had his last word.
Filled with reflective statements like “When you feel comfortable with yourself, you can no longer write” and pensive footage of Bowie walking, painting and posing artfully as well as performing, “Moonage Daydream” is the first graduate school-level music documentary — it omits the basics and glories in the details, which actually gives the film a greater authority. It not only assumes the viewer knows that Bowie wrote “Changes” and “Rebel Rebel” and “Fame” and “Fashion” (and bravely omits those and other classics in favor of lesser-known songs), but also that we know them so well that we might never need to hear them again. Indeed, few songs or videos here get a full airing, and one that does — a hoarsely sung live version of “Modern Love” — seems to be there to emphasize Bowie’s comments about how lightweight his music became in his extremely lucrative early ’80s bid for megastardom, the “Let’s Dance” album. Ultimately that amounted to a hollow retroactive paycheck for his years of innovation: “Even though it was very successful, there was no growth,” Bowie says in a voiceover.
It’s actually the emotional low point of the film, which then gradually transitions to retrospective regret for those years and how they drained him spiritually and creatively, and then moves into his 1990s musical revival after meeting his wife Iman, with whom he spent the final 18 years of his life.
Despite the graduate-school approach — and despite the film’s unprecedented access to Bowie’s own archives — it’s more about the artist, the art and the man than red meat for superfans. Much of the footage is relatively well known: DA Pennebaker’s “Ziggy Stardust” concert film and Alan Yentob’s 1975 BBC “Cracked Actor” documentary, as well as his many music videos and feature films like “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Hunger.” But there’s also no shortage of insanely rare footage, presented with a refreshing emphasis on historical or emotional interest rather than fidelity: There are many not-optimal video clips and scratchy audio interviews from heaven knows where. And for the geeks, there is super-rare footage from early “Ziggy Stardust” dates in England, a segment of “Rock and Roll With Me” from the scantly documented 1974 “Soul Tour,” and even footage of him with Elizabeth Taylor and William Burroughs (although not together, unfortunately).
Inevitably, there’s plenty missing as well, presumably due to rights issues: His two songs performed live on “The Dinah Shore Show” in 1976 (which must have been an early-morning eyeful for the show’s housewife-heavy audience), and his astonishing appearance on Cher’s NBC variety show in 1975, where they performed a soulful if stiff duet on Bowie’s “Can You Hear Me” and also a flabbergasting medley that included “Da Do Ron Ron,” “Blue Moon,” “Day Tripper” and worse . But for those, there’s always YouTube.
“I’ve had an incredible life — I’d love to do it again,” Bowie says in a voiceover. And in its innovative, dreamlike fashion, “Moonage Daydream” offers the most complete account of that life to date.