'Moonage Daydream' Director Brett Morgen Explains Why the Best David Bowie Era Is the '90s

"I was, like a lot of people, turned away when he was actually producing some of his finest work"
'Moonage Daydream' Director Brett Morgen Explains Why the Best David Bowie Era Is the '90s
Photo courtesy of NEON
Moonage Daydream director Brett Morgen has an important message for David Bowie fans: don't forget about the '90s. When Exclaim! speaks with the filmmaker during the Toronto International Film Festival, he cites 1995's 1. Outside as his favourite Bowie album.

"I was that audience who stopped listening when he went into the mainstream," Morgen says of the backlash to Bowie's populist period in the mid-'80s. "And it kind of pains me now, because I came to that music [from the 1990s] when he was no longer with us. I was, like a lot of people, turned away when he was actually producing some of his finest work."

He continues, "Outside, to me, was a return to form. It was him no longer playing to the masses, and just trying to satisfy his own creative itch. Outside may not be my favourite album to listen to on a day-to-day basis, but it's the album that means the most to me in terms of what it's saying about him as an artist. … It's a revelation."

It's this unconventional perspective on Bowie that fuels Morgen's new Bowie documentary. Moonage Daydream is an extremely unconventional documentary, making little attempt to survey Bowie's life or fill in all the expected biographical facts. There's no mention at all of his first marriage, his children, his issues with drugs, or his early musical endeavours. Instead, it's an abstract collage that drifts between live performance footage, animations, vintage movie clips, and archival interviews with Bowie.

Along the way, it presents a loose chronology of his many phases, but there's a lot in comparison to a traditional biography — and Morgen is fine with that. It's similar in spirit to the approach the director took on the 2015 Kurt Cobain doc Montage of Heck.

"I was, myself, looking to explore the outer regions of nonfiction. I wanted to try to make a non-biographical film about an artist that was not rooted in the Wikipedia," he says. "I think the music doc genre is one of the most accessible platforms to watch, and one of the most creatively stifling genres. Almost every band has the same story. And they're great. There was a series in the '90s on VH1 called Behind the Music, which was incredible, just for fan service. But I was looking to try to a new angle. I have always approached my films with the idea that they're not definitive by any stretch of the imagination."

Moonage Daydream doesn't bother telling a traditional story, but it accomplishes something better: it offers a philosophical glimpse of what drove Bowie's restless creative drive, and why he never found a comfort zone. Ultimately, Morgen says, it's a portrait of transience.

"As I reflect back upon my lifetime, in the last 50 years of culture, there are very few mainstream artists or popular artists that I can think of who are willing to risk everything — their fame, their fortune and their audience — to satisfy a creative urge. And David did that consistently, throughout his entire career," Morgen says.

"This is him deciding to rewrite a new language of music and throwing away everything he knew and starting over again — time and time again. That, to me, is one of the things that I find most inspiring about David, is his courage. He had the audacity of an explorer, like [Neil] Armstrong or Jane Goodall. He explored the mind. David's [BowieNet message board] moniker was 'Sailor,' so it's not too much of a stretch … He was like Ulysses, except he was creating these storms for himself, and these challenges for himself, so that he could have more experiences."

So when Bowie fans check out Moonage Daydream in theatres starting this Friday (September 16), don't expect a straightforward life story — and maybe pay a little extra attention to that goateed bit in the '90s. You might just find your new favourite Bowie era.