Brett Morgen was in seventh grade when he heard David Bowie's music for the first time. "I was in my friend Andy Goldman's bedroom and he had Scary Monsters," the filmmaker remembers. "I was going through puberty, and I like to joke that I don't know what came first — Bowie or puberty — but they both had a transformative role in my life."
"Bowie was my introduction to curating my own art, curating my own culture," says Morgen. "Prior to that, I was only listening to my parents' music; so, at that point, just the album sleeve for Scary Monsters was so exotic. And the 'Ashes to Ashes' video was played in heavy rotation, even in those pre-MTV days. After that, I went and saw the Ziggy Stardust movie when it came out at the UA 6 in Westwood — which is now, like, a CVS. But my introduction was Scary Monsters."
In 2007, the Oscar-nominated director (1999's On the Ropes) pitched Bowie a hybrid non-fiction film in which the musician would reprise his Ziggy Stardust as a cabaret performer in modern-day Berlin. Due to Bowie being in semi-retirement at that point, the project never came to fruition; however, following Bowie's death in 2016, his former business manager and now estate executor, Bill Zysblat, reached out to Morgen with a proposal for what would eventually become Moonage Daydream.
"Andy ended up doing the titles for the film, which I kind of love," Morgen tells A.frame. "We went to Crossroads together" — a private prep school in Santa Monica, California — "and our eighth-grade teacher was my creative consultant on the film. So, it's all been kind of amazing."
Moonage Daydream is a film as unconventional as its subject, an immersive, kaleidoscopic experience that unfolds over 140 minutes. Morgen was given unprecedented access to Bowie's personal archives, a trove of more than five million "assets" including never-before-seen concert footage, rare interview clips, and movie outtakes, as well as Bowie's own poetry, drawings and journals. The film is guided by Bowie's words and lyrics, but is deliberately non-narrative.
"I wanted to create an experience," explains Morgen. "I wanted a film where the form was the content. I didn't want to put onto film what one can receive in another medium. And I do find that biography is better suited for literature — there's a 1,200-page biography about Jane Goodall where you learn way more information than you are going to learn in my movie, Jane. But what you get in the movie is an experience. You get something intangible."
"The reason Moonage Daydream is not called Bowie, is because Bowie can't be defined," he adds. "It's not for me to define him. The next person down the road, 10 years from now, can call it Bowie if they so think that they're doing the definitive film on Bowie, but I wouldn't be that bold."
"That's part of the Bowie thing. It's not about being a virtuoso, it's about discovery... It was about being adventurers and taking our cues from David."
Even Morgen's previous work on 2012's Crossfire Hurricane, about the 50th anniversary of The Rolling Stones, and 2015's Cobain: Montage of Heck, about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, proved moot when it came to Moonage Daydream. "I had to throw out everything I knew," he says. "All my films up to this point have been very linear, A through Z. The form may be radical, but, underneath it all, is a very linear, simple storyline. I've never written a pure experience, and I didn't know how to do that."
"I'm not an editor by trade. I'm a director, first and foremost," Morgen says. (Unlike many of his past films, he was the sole editor on this.) "Part of the success of the film, if I may, is that I'm not a polished editor. That enabled me to create a spontaneous language that seemed to be more apropos to David's language. And every department head who worked on this film, I told them all on day one, 'Everything that you know, leave behind. We're going to reinvent how we work on this.' That's part of the Bowie thing. It's not about being a virtuoso, it's about discovery. For all of us, it was about being adventurers and taking our cues from David."
When Morgen began working on Moonage Daydream, the project was supposed to last only 18 months. The movie would ultimately take seven years to complete, with multiple years spent combing through Bowie's archives alone. More than 650 hours were spent coloring the footage. Morgen can't even fathom how much time was spent on the sound design, working with Bohemian Rhapsody's Oscar-winning team of Paul Massey, John Warhurst and Nina Hartstone. "We weren't remastering," the filmmaker says. "We were remaking the songs from scratch." In the midst of it, he suffered a heart attack and spent a week in a coma.
"If I had known it would be seven years, I would not have signed up!" Morgen laughs. But then, he pauses for a moment and backtracks, saying, "No, no. If I'd known what I would know now — because I feel so much more complete as an artist at this station — I would do it."
"David Bowie kept me inspired. I found endless wisdom and endless inspiration every day, and I continue to," he says. Morgen's only hope is that now you will too. "I didn't know if anyone would understand this film. I really thought it was a little arts and crafts project, but I've seen videos of entire theaters on their feet dancing through the end credits! I'm just like, 'Oh my god... I can't believe everyone else has gone along with this.' It's kind of crazy!"
Moonage Daydream hits theaters Sept. 16.