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Run Time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Star: David Bowie
Writer/Director: Brett Morgen
Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival
I miss David Bowie now that he’s gone, but I must confess I never knew my Ziggy Stardust from my Aladdin Sane, and my eyes glazed over when he began exploring the limited possibilities of disco in the 1980s.
So imagine my surprise when this over-the-top documentary, within its first 15 minutes, had me hanging on every twist and turn in Bowie’s life. Writer/director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) masterfully weaves together archive footage, Bowie interviews, and crackling animation to create not so much a biography as a piece of performance art worthy of the film’s subject.
Bowie, fiercely private, liked to cast himself as The Man Who Fell to Earth, concealing his backstory behind the characters and spectacles he staged. So it’s intriguing to find here rare glimpses into Bowie’s childhood, which despite his protestations as being “regular” must have been a nightmare, with indifferent parents who also seemed to hate each other and a beloved half-brother who, early in life, fell into the grip of schizophrenia (the thousand-yard stare in Bowie’s eyes when an interviewer asks him about his mum will bring tears to yours).
Morgen leads us through most of Bowie’s varied stage personas, and dissects how each of them were, in effect, efforts by the singer to work through his own personal traumas. And he even allows Bowie the grace to be casually contradictory; alternately affirming he wanted to change the world with his music; then confessing that all he wanted was to entertain people. And then switching back again.
But most of all there’s the music: A quadrophonic collection of immortal pieces from the early glitter days all the way through his final years — when Bowie did, indeed, seem to be making music purely for the joy of it. Morgen often hands the proceedings over to animator Stefan Nadelman, who fills the screen with psychedelic Bowie-esque wonders. Best of all, Morgen slips into the editor’s chair to conjure, with remarkable seamlessness, time-trips through Bowie’s life, clipping together footage of Bowie performing some songs over a period of decades.
Bowie is the man who sold the world on radical individuality in its rock stars — and even for the casual Bowie observer, Moonage Daydream sells us on appreciating a too-short life, lived to the hilt.
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