Brett Morgen’s “Moonage Daydream,” a freewheeling documentary about David Bowie, doesn’t offer a chronology of the life of the late pop icon. Rather it provides a fever dream of sound and vision, with songs torn apart, reimagined and reassembled in ways that reflect its subject’s chameleonic music and art.
The doc, out now in IMAX theaters, was a labor of love for Morgen that took four years to assemble and edit. It was another 18 months constructing the ambitious soundtrack, which required the talents of the Oscar-winning “Bohemian Rhapsody” team of Ventura, Calif.-based rerecording mixer Paul Massey (with David Giammarco); London-based supervising sound and music editor John Warhurst and supervising sound editor Nina Hartstone; and Dolby Atmos Music Studios.
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Veteran mixer Massey recommended Warhurst and Hartstone to Morgen. “We know instinctively what each other is about to do,” Massey explains.
One of the challenges for Massey was mixing for a variety of formats – including IMAX 12.0 and 5.0, Dolby Atmos, 7.1 and 5.1 theatrical as well as Home Atmos 5.1 and stereo. Seeing it in a screening room on the Fox lot one early opening is an eye and ear-opener. It feels like you’ve been plopped in the middle of an immersive 360-degree maelstrom of music and Bowie-narrated voiceovers, its sound design taking off on flights that tell the story emotionally rather than through narrative or even pictures.
“In the process, we mashed up a lot of music that wasn’t designed to go together into some amazing pieces of work,” explains Massey. “And the sound design is fully integrated into that. The soundtrack is like a huge dissolve, from the very beginning of the film until the end.”
“One of the things that became apparent was that the sound didn’t necessarily relate to the image,” explains Warhurst. “The sound often led the way, and the picture followed, reflecting what was going on inside Bowie’s head.”
It was up to Hartstone, one of the rare women in a prominent position in the film sound industry, to work Bowie’s sound bites into a coherent narrative.
“We wanted to be very faithful to Bowie and the relationship he had with his fans,” she says. “And how that developed through the different periods in his life, from his first explosion onto the scene, the screaming girls — all through his career. We did a lot of listening to the tapes that [music producer] Tony Visconti provided and that Brett had collected, the live shows and the interstitial bits where he addressed the crowd, and how they responded to his music.”
There are many fascinating aural juxtapositions in the final film — Bowie crooning “Move On” from the 1979 album “The Lodger” over a scene from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” or lying on a bed to the sound of a creaking ship bobbing on an ocean wave. After receiving Morgen’s gargantuan list of notes during an initial daylong session, Massey went to work. “Brett wanted this to be almost like a theme-park ride: an art installation told from Bowie’s point of view — a whole new experience of his music and life.” Getting the stems — the individual recorded parts — offered Massey a unique look inside Bowie’s creative process, one that he emulates on the “Moonage Daydream” soundtrack: “I could see how he integrated instruments that ordinarily didn’t go together to create slightly different harmonic structures, sounds we haven’t heard before.”
Added Warhurst, “When you peel back the layers, there are things you’d never heard before, like the talking in the background of ‘Ashes to Ashes.’ You didn’t know all that was there. We wanted the sound to be a dense tapestry, something you could watch and listen to again and again and keep finding new things. Bowie’s music was very much like that. It was fascinating to look under the bonnet of his creations.
Hartstone considers her collaboration on the film a career and personal milestone. “Brett really sparked our imaginations,” she says of the director. “We weren’t just putting sound to images. We were free to actually take it in all sorts of realms you wouldn’t ordinarily do in a soundscape. We felt very fortunate to be part of such a creative endeavor. It’s one of the most ambitious commercial projects I’ve ever been involved with.”
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