MOONAGE DAYDREAM 4K UHD Review: Rocking Criterion

Filmmaker Brett Morgen interprets David Bowie’s many ch-ch-changes in a deeply transcendent, experimental immersion film.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
MOONAGE DAYDREAM 4K UHD Review: Rocking Criterion

When it comes to the work of David Bowie, only one thing was certain: when you rock n’ roll with him, you don’t know where he’ll take you.  Leave it to this most unique of musical pioneers to belt out to those with ears to hear and eyes to see and souls to feel postmortem via sound and vision.  Freak out in this Moonage Daydream.

An immaculate assembly of concert footage, behind the scenes moments, and personal asides all writ large, documentarian Brett Morgen’s expansively rich musical experimental docu-scape is so much of what I long for in movies.  That is, a sensory experience that leans into some sort of pop cultural transcendence.  That it’s all in the service of selectively exploring the iconoclastic David Bowie makes the exquisitely bombastic Moonage Daydream all the more personal for so many of us.

At the time of the film’s theatrical release, Dustin Chang at ScreenAnarchy wrote, “Moonage Daydream is definitely the maximalist gift for Bowie fans. And no doubt, it will introduce one of the most, if not the most, important artists of our time, who was taken too soon, to a new generation of music lovers in a big way. See it big and see it loud. It's one of the best moviegoing experiences of the year.”

While I stand in full agreement with Dustin on the sheer greatness of Moonage Daydream, the big screen option has come and gone.  Criterion has seen fit to release it to home video with an awesome 4K UHD disc option.  It comes directly from the 4K digital master, supervised by writer-director-editor-producer Brett Morgen.  The audio is presented in Dolby Atmos and stereo soundtrack options.  For those not 4K-equipped, a Blu-ray version, which also houses a modest selection of bonus features, is included.

Via said bonus features, we learn about how, with unprecedented access to Bowie archives, journals, and recordings, Morgen threw himself into the process of getting to the bottom of it all.  On his newly recorded audio commentary (the tell-all explanatory commentary he previously told himself he’d never record), he states that years were spent watching and listening to every bit of recorded media to feature his subject.  

Based on the absolute richness of the voluminous inclusions and the surprising ways that they relate, reinforce, and sometimes attack one another, Morgen’s claims are not only apparent, but the effort is fully justified.  The result is a film that experientially honors its subject in its own mysterious and richness, mysterious yet relatable yet confrontational in its own right.

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Assuredly, Morgen takes D.A. Pennebaker’s observational Ziggy Stardust concert footage and transforms it into an otherworldly panoply of color and space oddity.  Though Pennebaker’s camera may well have been the only camera that did not love Bowie, Morgen’s liberal manipulation of the image gives it new juice.  

Such is the way throughout Moonage Daydream with much of the vintage footage.  A previously unreleased live performance from this time of Bowie performing the song “Rock ’n’ Roll with Me” is included among the Blu-ray’s bonus features.

Old, maybe overly familiar Bowie footage is simultaneously represented and reimagined, both setting it aflight and reining it into this far out fever dream. Iconic and lesser-prominent songs are deconstructed and heard in parts, glimpses, or thoughts of their known versions.  They become part of Morgen’s uber-intricate audio/visual collage that dares to usher us inside the enigmatic whole of it all.  It All.

Though born David Jones, Bowie lived his life in a nexus of contemplation spurred on through his deep devotion to art, music, film, science fiction, and all manner of literature and writing.  Chaos and impermanence, gender fluidity, spiritual yearnings, to love or not to love… all was paramount in the service of Bowie’s arrived-at overall theme transience.  “Chaos and fragmentation have been my throughline,” he says in an interview, likely circa the mid-1980s.

Dustin Chang’s review states, “Bowie's transformations and delving into different music genres over his career is well documented. The film highlights his endless searching, and candid moments of reflection; from his glam rock days, where he experimented with cut-up lyrics, to his grunge Berlin days, when he went there to isolate himself and find new sounds in electronica, to his hugely successful pop music stint in the 80s, to the industrial sound of the 90s and 2000s. In candid interviews, he expresses regrets and is self-conscious about some of the career paths he has taken -- like appearing in a glitzy Pepsi commercial with Tina Turner.”

Abstraction abounds as it should, going as far as to actualize as the film spends time with some paintings that inspired Bowie.  This sensibly gives way to looking at his own deeply personal paintings.  In life, the artist was beyond reluctant to publicly display them, as he felt they weren’t good enough.  They are.  

Morgen follows form in a sense, as he “uses Stan Brakage-inspired animation of exploding primary colors to accompany the glorious music, punctuating the isolated beats and guitar riff that starts many of Bowie's famed songs. More than anything, Moonage Daydream sounds and feels like a rousing concert documentary where one can't help but feel emotional several times.”  (Again, Dustin Chang’s words).

The comparatively newer and lesser-known song “Goodbye Spaceboy” sets the tone of science fiction-informed rock n’ roll madness.  “AladdinSane” plays over the film’s “mental illness” segment.  It is accompanied by lots of footage of Bowie playing an alienated extra-terrestrial in Nicholas Roeg’s indomitable The Man Who Fell to Earth.  This matches well with the film’s reoccurring motif of grey planets drifting about the starry cosmos, itself reflecting televised footage rendered from the still-impossible vantage point of Major Tom himself.

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Though ostensibly a documentary, Moonage Daydream, by virtue of decree by Bowie’s handlers, is in fact “Morgen on Bowie”, an installation piece writ large.  In the concentric circles of originality in art making, Morgen thins the line separating himself from his subject.  

For that reason and more, you’re enriched according to what you bring. Like Todd Haynes’ similarly of evocative Velvet Goldmine documentary a few years prior, this is most likely “one for the fans.” If you arrive with an attachment to the work of David Bowie, that will be amplified. If you arrive expecting a straightforward explanation of the man’s creative fire, very little may be ignited within you.

A woefully unsung aspect of Moonage Daydream is that it is absolutely made up of some of the finest, sharpest, most pronounced editing of 2022.  That it went unacknowledged throughout the applicable subsequent film awards season only points to how regimented the overall critical scene is in terms of which movies matter in which ways.  “Best Editing” is a threshold achievable only by narrative live-action features, no matter how enthralling, how ingenious the assembly of something outside of that is.

Likewise, the Moonage Daydream 4K UHD/Blu-ray package as presented by Criterion is remarkable.  Just beyond the spacey, glittery new cover art by Empire Design, alongside of a printed essay by film critic Jonathan Romney and a “collectible poster” insert, we arrive at the discs themselves.  The video bonus features are not overwhelming but solidly informative and interesting.  

Relegated to the Blu-ray disc which accompanies the UHD disc, we find a Q&A with Morgen and musician Mike Garson, hosted by fellow filmmaker Mark Romanek, that was shot before an audience at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.  At Romanek’s prompting, Morgen shared how his mandatory deep dive into the voluminous Bowie archive resulted in not only the creative shape of this film, but his own major health crisis. Though Morgen had been no alien to rock star documentaries prior, having made 2015’s Cobain: Montage of Heck and 2012’s Rolling Stones film Crossfire HurricaneMoonage Daydream was different.

A separate new interview with Morgen’s rerecording mixers David Giammarco and Paul Massey gets at just how different everyone’s approach to Moonage Daydream was.  To create an aural soundscape that would utilize the most highly equipped IMAX auditoriums, much of the vintage footage needed to be sweetened, reworked, amended.  

Giammarco and Massey make no bones about how alteration was on the table.  Per Morgen’s own approach, historical authenticity takes a backseat to creative reinterpretation.  The rerecording done for the film is at times a big production in an of itself.  Bowie, ever changing and reconsidering his own body of work, would no doubt appreciate the results.

David Jones got what we all get: a life.  Though in the end he revealed himself to be a merely mortal earthling, the man had an uncanny talent for tapping into some higher plane of existence and bringing its mysteries to the fore.  That he allowed and enabled transcendence within his talents musically, intellectually, and artistically is what made him Bowie.

Criterion’s Features:

•           4K digital master, supervised by writer-director-editor-producer Brett Morgen, with Dolby Atmos and stereo soundtracks

•           One 4K UHD disc of the film and one Blu-ray with the film and special features

•           Audio commentary featuring Morgen

•           Q&A with Morgen, filmmaker Mark Romanek, and musician Mike Garson at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood

•           Interview with rerecording mixers David Giammarco and Paul Massey

•           Previously unreleased 1974 live performance by David Bowie of “Rock ’n’ Roll with Me”

•           Trailer

•           English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing

•           PLUS: An essay by film critic Jonathan Romney and a collectible poster insert

New cover by Empire Design

Moonage Daydream

  • Brett Morgen
  • Brett Morgen
  • David Bowie
  • Trevor Bolder
  • Ken Fordham
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4K UHDBrett MorgenCriterionDavid BowieTrevor BolderKen FordhamDocumentaryBiographyHistory

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