By now, we all are so familiar with the structure of the music bio-documentary that when we watch one, we know what to expect: the hard-scrabble beginnings, the rise to fame, the pressure of being at the top, the crushing fall, the victorious comeback. VH1’s “Behind the Music” trained us so well.
And that’s precisely what Brett Morgen wanted to avoid when he set out to make a film about David Bowie. “Moonage Daydream,” which premiered in May at the Cannes film festival and showed again at the Toronto fest earlier this week, is a work of nonfiction centered on Bowie, but it’s hardly a traditional tour through the Thin White Duke’s life. As Steve Pond, TheWrap’s Executive Editor, Awards, noted in his review of the film out of Cannes, “Moonage Daydream” “abandons all thought of straightforward narrative in favor of an immersive and purposefully mysterious and chaotic Bowie experience.”
Morgen visited TheWrap and Shutterstock’s Interview and Portrait Studio at TIFF, where he sat down with Pond to discuss his Bowie documentary that is not a documentary. “I think that using the saying ‘a documentary about David Bowie’ would be setting a false set of expectations for the viewer because when we say ‘documentary about David Bowie,’ it just like saying, you know, ‘a horror film’ — there was blood,” the filmmaker said. “A documentary, there’s facts and information. And this was very consciously and deliberately made as a kind of experiment in form, an adventure, to see if we could create something other than the standardized music biopic.”
Morgen worked with the Bowie estate to sort through the vast archive that the artist himself had a regular hand in maintaining. “For the past 25 years of his life, he was coming to the office weekly, working with an archivist, but he didn’t know what to do with this stuff,” Morgen said. “And he said something along the lines of, you know, ‘I don’t want to participate in a trad documentary.'”
Enter Morgen. “So I arrived and said, ‘Listen, I am only interested in your archive. And I’m not really interested in biography. I’m not interested in facts. I’m not interested in dates.’ And what I didn’t realize then, because my I hadn’t begun my deep dive into Bowie, is how apropos that setup was for a film about David Bowie, who is an artist who I think defies facts defies definition is beautifully mysterious. His his art is mysterious.”
Creating a film through which audiences could experience Bowie (rather than merely digest his biography) was the goal. But that was a puzzle all its own. “The challenge initially was how to do a narrative that’s not biographical,” Morgen said. And even with his experiential vision for the project in mind, there were times when biographical facts crept in. “The second I introduced one little piece of biographical information, the floodgates can open for the viewer and go, ‘Well, why don’t you mention A through Z?’ And I had to say to myself, but it’s better if I keep a little this stuff in. It’s imperfect, but art is imperfect.”
As for what Morgen took away from his years-long deep dive into Bowiedom, he said it is the artist’s sheer singularity: “What makes David so unique is that most of us — this is human nature — we cling to our success, our fortune, security. We all want comfort and security. And very few stars in entertainment are willing to risk all of their fame, their standing, the audience, just to scratch a creative itch.
“Bowie,” Morgen added, “not only did it once, he did it time and time again.”
Studio sponsors include GreenSlate, Moët & Chandon, PEX and Vancouver Film School.