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    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    Documentary a ‘theme park ride’ into the mind of David Bowie

    Filmmaker Brett Morgen remembers the moment when the wonder of David Bowie entered his world.

    “‘Scary Monsters’ was the first album that I purchased,” Morgen says. “I vividly remember being in my friend’s room and the cover was so awesome. And the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video was like, wow.

    “This was 1981, and I’d say he was the tugboat for all culture and art, and my kind of awakening to the world at large.”

    But was the then-teenage Morgen really awake to it all? Today, as “Moonage Daydream,” his new documentary on Bowie is released, he’s not so sure.

    Instead, the writer-director of such acclaimed documentaries as “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and “Jane,” a portrait of primatologist Jane Goodall, says he didn’t truly appreciate Bowie until after the performer’s death when Morgen, who was 47 and already at work on the Bowie film, had a heart attack and nearly died.

    “I was in a coma for awhile, and it was as I came out of that, trying to put my life back together, I started listening and encountering Bowie,” he says. “I knew he was wildly creative, and I expected to discover and see that.

    “What I wasn’t aware of, because I’d never listened to interviews with him, was how sage he was, and how positive his messaging was, and how much I needed it at that point in my life.

    “I was still trying to figure out how to live at 47. I think at the time I had the heart attack I was very much still in a suspended stage of adolescence, you know?

    “And Bowie, from the very start, had an appreciation and zest for life that I’ve rarely encountered,” Morgen says. “He has a line in the film that the moment you’ve lived more days than you have in front of you is a moment you can really begin to appreciate life.

    “But I think Bowie appreciated it from the earliest stages.”

    “Moonage Daydream” was still several years from completion at that point, but when Morgen was well enough to return to it, his sick-bed epiphany fueled a film that’s as almost as adventurously creative as its subject.

    “I found absolute inspiration in Bowie’s music, as I always have,” Morgen says. “But really, it’s interesting, because you started asking me what role he played for me when I discovered him at 12 or 13.

    “And it was profound but nowhere near as profound as the impact he would have on me at 47.”

    Absolute beginners

    Morgen met Bowie in 2007 to discuss a nonfiction film project that ultimately didn’t work out.

    When Bowie died in January 2016, Morgen had recently started work on a series of IMAX music experience projects — “Kind of curated experiences around some of our favorite artists,” he says — and immediately thought of Bowie.

    “I called his executor, who had been in the meeting with us, and told them what I was interested in doing,” Morgen says. “He said David had been collecting — he was almost a hoarder — and had saved everything throughout his career, but never wanted to participate in a more traditional venture.

    “So when I presented my pitch, it really seemed to resonate, and they provided me complete access,” he says. “That was an amazing gift, and endorsement, and invitation to go through the archives kind of open wide-eyed and see what I could see, find what I could find, and put it together.”

    His eyes grew even wider when he finally saw how much audio and visual material Bowie had available for Morgen to work with.

    “In the past, on ‘Jane,’ it was probably a three-week undertaking to screen through everything,” he says. “On the Stones (the subject of 2012’s “Crossfire Hurricane”), it was two months to screen everything from ‘63 to ‘81.

    “We built four months into the schedule. It took two years. So from the word go, we were a little bit behind the curve.”

    In the middle of that, the heart attack arrived. At the end of watching all that Bowie material, a less life-threatening but equally existential crisis arrived: Morgen had no idea how to write his script.

    Transition transmission

    “I was going to watch television with David Bowie for two years,” Morgen says, adding that he was used to writing the script as soon as he’d seen all the material. “I had it written into my schedule, ‘OK, finish screening, one week of writing, start editing.’

    Morgen never intended to make a linear documentary of Bowie’s life: He was born here, he went to school there — no. But he was still unsure of how to do it.

    “I finished, and I didn’t know how to write an experience.”

    “Moonage Daydream” was conceived as almost “a theme park ride,” he says. A trip into the mind and world of David Bowie, filled with music and imagery that viewers would absorb into their own spirits and souls.

    “I was going and selling to my financiers something that I had no idea how to do,” Morgen says. “It’s like selling a rocket ship to get to Mars to an investor having no idea how to build the rocket ship. You just want to go to Mars.

    “And they give you the money, and then you spend all their money ingesting the material. So I can’t even hire anyone to help me get out of this mess. And it was a mess. Probably the most difficult eight months of my life.

    “I knew what I wanted it to feel like. I just didn’t know what happened in minute 17.”

    The screenplay eluded him, but those eight months of driving to the office did produce a 44-page manifesto of the ideas he wanted the film to embody.

    “No dates, no facts, no information,” Morgen says of his rules intended to break the mold of a traditional bio-doc. “By July 2019, I had arrived at the throughline, which was transience, chaos and fragmentation. These that David spoke about throughout his career.”

    Station to station

    One day, eight months in, he got to his office and kept on driving.

    “I didn’t want to go in,” Morgen says. “Nothing was happening in there. So I drove down to LAX, boarded a flight — you can go to Southwest Airlines and just say, ‘I need to leave L.A.!’ — and went to Albuquerque [New Mexico].”

    It wasn’t an accidental destination. Bowie had talked often about how creatively inspired he was by being in transit.

    “I recall him talking about writing a lot of ‘Aladdin Sane’ on a train going to the Southwest, and he shot ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ in Albuquerque,” Morgen says.

    From the Albuquerque airport, he took a taxi to the train station and boarded an Amtrak heading back to L.A.

    “The second the train started moving the floodgates open,” Morgen says. He opened the binders he’d brought with ideas for the film and started plotting Bowie’s life as the Hero’s Myth as written by Joseph Campbell.

    “I said let’s put Bowie, just so I have some framing device, into the hero’s journey,” he says. “And the difference we’ll do is where Ulysses had to endure all these challenges, David will have these challenges but he’s creating them himself.

    “He’s creating his own storms. He’s creating his own tempest.”

    Then he picked three songs from each of Bowie’s albums that related back to the quest and the themes he’d sketched, put them into a playlist, and mixed them all up.

    “Three hours later, as the sun was setting, I sat in my compartment, listening to the playlist, and that was this script.”

    Sound + Vision

    “Moonage Daydream” is ideally seen on the biggest screen with the loudest speakers. Morgen says he thinks this is one of the first films whose original format was 12.0 audio, designed for IMAX theaters and Atmos audio systems.

    Sound mixer Paul Massey, an Oscar winner for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” also mixed it to match the size and shape of any theater where it might screen, Morgen says. And Massey and Bowie’s longtime friend and producer Tony Visconti also remixed the songs used in the film to maximize their impact in cinemas.

    “If you’re paying money to go see this movie in a movie theater, it should be for an experience,” Morgen says. “You should be hearing Bowie’s music in a way that you can’t hear it at home. And hopefully, that’s achieved.”

    While the music is spectacular — only recordings with the best source of audio were used — the visuals are equally creative.

    There are interviews Bowie did on camera over his life — the singer is used as the only narrator in the film — as well as rare concert footage, music videos and films Bowie made as he traveled the world on various projects.

    At times, as the music plays, things get abstract on screen. A clip from the old black-and-white “Nosferatu” appears, soon followed by early filmmaker Georges Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon,” and then Bowie’s “Blackstar” video, one of the last he made before his death.

    “David was a culture vulture, and he was my cultural passport to the world,” Morgen says. “Through Bowie, I was introduced to William Burroughs and Bertolt Brecht and things that weren’t being taught in eighth grade.

    “He would make a vague reference to something which I didn’t know and then I would go look it up,” he says of both his adolescence and the filmmaking here. “I started putting together a list of any time David mentioned a source of inspiration.

    “Every clip, every photograph, every reference is something that inspired David throughout his life,” Morgen says. “The hope was that the film would be a Bowie experience, so it would invite the audience to project onto the screen, to fill in the blanks.

    “If you’re a deep Bowie fan then you know what he was doing during the moments that I’m not talking about. And if you’re a casual fan, you don’t know about Iggy Pop, so you’re not going, ‘Where’s Iggy?’”

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