With his messy leonine mane and finely chiseled features, Brett Morgen looks as much like a rock star as the subjects he trains his manic eye on. Think a younger Wayne Coyne without the suits, or John Hiatt in his prime.
Unconventional bordering on revolutionary in his approach to filmmaking, he’s a collagist, a fantabulist, and a seer. Notorious for the amount of research he does, Morgen begins his projects by combing through every bit of media he can find, sifting through artifacts, ephemera and intimate archival material, personal diaries, and photographs. He reads every book written (in chronological order) on his subject until a pattern emerges and he is able to extricate the person from the legend.
In The Kid Stays in the Picture, his Tinseltown soap opera of the life of Godfather and Chinatown producer Robert Evans, he captures the vulnerability and the sometimes forced glamor in the rise and fall of the producer.
Similarly, in his tender and sad portrait of Nirvana’s fallen minstrel in Cobain: Montage of Heck, what emerges is a painfully honest portrait of the psychically wounded musician, constructed from Kurt Cobain’s own diaries, sound recordings, artwork, and interviews with his previously pressshy family. In Crossfire Hurricane, Morgen’s account of the Rolling Stones’ first 20 years, he takes viewers back to the times when the Stones sizzled with Dionysian fury, constructing an intimate narrative from a series of interviews conducted in the 85 hours he spent with the band.
With his seventh film, Moonage Daydream, Morgen had something else in mind. He wanted to showcase the myth, not the man.
Leaving a short and contentious pitch meeting with Bowie in 2007, Morgen had no clue that he would ever make a Bowie documentary. But when Bowie died in early 2016, the filmmaker, who was developing a series of IMAX films on musicians, contacted Bill Zysblat, Bowie’s manager, who had been in the room back in 2007 when he approached Bowie with the original project. To his great surprise, Zysblat agreed. ‘“David actually loved the meeting you guys had,”’ Morgen recalls Zysblat saying. ‘“He never wanted to make a traditional documentary, so we weren’t sure what we were going to do with all this stuff. And it sounds like you’ve created a format that might work for us.’”
Almost six years later, viewers can see how right Zysblat was, and further, what a miracle it was that Moonage Daydream ever got made at all. Exhaustingly, Morgen had examined 5 million assets that the Bowie estate shared, including performance footage, interview and movie clips, and Bowie’s own paintings, as well as “everything on YouTube.” But early in the project, on Jan. 5, 2017, Morgen, then 47, suffered a heart attack, flatlining for nearly three minutes and spending the next five days in a coma.
My hope was people would experience the film the same way they listen to a Bowie album; we don’t learn about David Jones [by listening to a Bowie album], we learn about ourselves.
“To be very clear, I didn’t have a heart attack because of this film,” he says. “This film was my recovery from the heart attack. And learning how to live.
“[If] you go to a movie about David Bowie, the last thing you think you’re going to find is yourself,” continues Morgen. “He actually creates a road map on how to live a fulfilling life, and speaks to anyone looking for a better way of moving through the world.” What a way for a Daydream...
How much input did David have in the movie?
Brett Morgen: The only thing the estate said to me was “David’s not here to sign off on your work, so your film will never be David Bowie on David Bowie. It’s going to be Brett Morgen on David Bowie and you need to embrace that. You need to make it your own.” That’s an amazing gift to receive from an executor.
Your first meeting with David in 2007 was oddly contentious. He was extremely critical of your most recent work, Chicago 10.
It was shocking more than it was horrible. It certainly was an experience! Usually when one is invited into one of these first meetings there is a lot of seduction. In fact, it’s always seduction! So it’s rare for someone to crap on your most recent work unless they’re testing you.
I don’t think he did it for any reason other than he actually did not like Chicago 10 [Morgen’s film about the demonstrations and violent eruptions at the 1968 Democratic Convention], In the moment I was just kind of taken aback. All I could think was, who is this? What’s going on? Why am I here?
I said, ‘David, I can’t say I really appreciate anything you’ve done since ’83.’ He looked at me, locked eyes, and said, ‘Touche.’
I had a meeting with Tom Cruise the same month I met David. Tom spent the first 40 minutes asking me where I grew up, what my schooling was like, and I was like, ‘Whoa, Tom Cruise wants to know about me, this is so weird. ’ But he was just being charming. It was an act. Part of it might’ve been sincere, but he was also being disarming.
Bowie didn’t do any of that sort of stuff. He was direct. I honestly don’t think anyone has ever been that direct with me who I wasn’t intimate or familiar with. After he finished destroying Chicago 10, [his personal assistant] Coco [Schwab], who was in the room, asked what my favorite Bowie album was.
I told him the truth. I had stopped paying attention to him after Let’s Dance. I said, “David, I can’t say I really appreciate anything you’ve done since ’83.” He looked at me, locked eyes, and said, “Touche.” I’d never heard that word used in conversation outside of that moment.
I thought it was something people just said in movies. Although later, when I started work on the project, I was haunted by the fact that I had been flippant.
Later, while working on the film, I came to genuinely appreciate his more recent music and was in awe of what he created, particularly Heathens. Blackstar hadn’t come out yet when I met with him in 2007, but that is one of his most extraordinary recordings.
You have said that after you finished Cobain: Montage of Heck, you probably knew Kurt better than even his family members. Did you feel something similar about David Bowie when you were finished with Moonage Daydream?
The film was never designed to explore who David Jones really is. It was more about understanding “Bowie,” in quotations. Not David Jones, not David Bowie, but the idea of Bowie. While we don’t get to know David Jones, I do think it illuminates Bowie even for those who are well-versed in Bowie, simply by virtue of seeing the journey connected from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars to Blackstar. We can view the relationship between periods probably more effectively than has been previously allowed. Even Bowie’s friends who’ve seen the film have walked away with a deeper appreciation and understanding for how deliberate some of these choices he made were.
One of the great epiphanies for me in going through all the material was an interview where he talks about Let’s Dance. I always assumed that he made that album and it became popular. I have read every book about Bowie; I never saw anything that stated otherwise. But the idea that he decided to be popular, giving himself yet another challenge, even before he started writing the music, that was kind of mind-boggling to me. Even trying to achieve pop stardom was an act of experimentation for him.
One of the interviewers asks him if there’s a place for love in his life, and Bowie says he believes in love, but there wasn’t a place in his life for it. Then, later he speaks about finding love and meeting Iman, subverting everything that he said in the earlier part of his life.
I think the film shows that initially he wasn’t ready for love. He hadn’t got to a place where he could love or accept love. He didn’t want to surrender what was required to be in a loving relationship. I think his experiences in the 1980s led him to that position, where he realized it wasn’t all about the career, it wasn’t giving him the same sense of satisfaction it once had, because he wasn’t satisfied and fulfilled creatively and artistically. 1 think that for the first time in his life, he was led to a place where he wondered what else could satiate him, and it turned out to be love. The love story with Iman is very much embedded into what Moonage Daydream is.
What was your goal for the film?
My hope was people would experience the film the same way they listen to a Bowie album; we don’t learn about David Jones [by listening to a Bowie album], we learn about ourselves. The last thing you think you’re going to find in a Bowie documentary is yourself. But I want people to reflect on the choices that they’ve made in their own lives. He actually creates a road map on how to live a satisfying fulfilling life, and speaks to anyone looking for a map to a better way of moving through the world.
I think if I had made this film at any period before my heart attack, it’s rather unlikely that it would have been a film about how to live a satisfying and fulfilled and complete life in the 21st century, because I hadn’t been living a satisfied and balanced life. I needed Bowie’s guidance to arrive there. I felt like he was talking to me. And he sort of was. That’s what the film is—it’s about learning how to live.
You spoke of Bowie speaking to you from beyond in that movie screening. Do you think he had mystical powers?
I describe Bowie to people this way: If you give me a deck of cards and I throw it on the ground, it’s going to be a mess, but if you give that same deck of cards to Bowie, it’s not going to be a house of cards. It’s going to be a castle. This is from an observation I made after watching every piece of known media about the performer David Bowie, and what I’m left with [is] that it was otherworldly.
Did you have the sense he was different from the rest of us?
Like most great artists, I think he was more attuned and more sensitive. He can hear and see things that we can’t. It is not futurism—it’s about the now. Any great artists at their best are historians, they’re putting time stamps on their work; they’re reflections of these moments in time. That’s why their work seems kind of ahead of itself, because they’re picking up currencies that we’re just lagging behind. It wasn’t that Bowie was a prophet in the sense that, like, Nostradamus could see tomorrow. He could feel today.
It’s surprising you don’t mention his first wife, Angie Bowie, but there are a couple of photographs of the two of them together. They were the beautiful It Couple of that era.
That’s why it’s in there. It’s interesting. I was a wreck about Iman because I was aware that I was breaking my own covenant [about having no biographical material] in the film, and it would be open to criticisms that it lacked cohesion, because once you mentioned one person, you had to mention others. If there are no names mentioned, no journalist can say to me, “Why didn’t you mention [Bowie’s son] Duncan? Why didn’t you mention Iggy Pop?” As soon as you mention one name, then it opens the door, the floodgates. If I mention Iman, why don’t I mention Angie? And that’s a fair question. And my response is, it’s art. It’s not perfect. This is Bowie speaking to me.
After spending so much time with David Bowie making this film, what do you think will surprise people most about him?
I think that he’s much more relatable than most people would think. Also, I wasn’t aware of how spiritual or sagacious he was. I knew he was an amazing artist. I didn’t know that he would offer life advice. I don’t know of another musician (I’m sure they exist) who’s going to provide the Tao of their life and it’s going to hold for two hours and 20 minutes.
This article originally appeared in a CREEM Special Edition on David Bowie for the release of Moonage Daydream. Explore the entire issue here.