One would assume that David Bowie got his iconic Ziggy Stardust red-rooster haircut at some ultra-fashionable hair salon in London, but the real story is far more interesting—and charming.
In the early 1970s, while working as a hairstylist at a local salon in an unglamorous London neighborhood, Suzi Lussey met a Mrs. Jones, an older woman who came in for a weekly Thursday-afternoon shampoo. Jones often spoke glowingly of her son David, an artist who “sings in a band.” David, of course, turned out to be David Bowie, who had just had a massive pop hit with “Space Oddity.”
In time, Mrs. Jones finally introduced Suzi to her boy, who was looking for a dramatic new look. Bowie, who had long blond hair at the time, showed the hairdresser a photo in a magazine of a female model with short, spiked hair dyed red and asked if she could do the same for him.
“I thought to myself, it’s a woman’s hairstyle, how am I gonna do that!?” Lussey told the British Daily Mail. “But inside I was excited—it was a moment to be creative. Here I was with a fantastic-looking bloke with a long white neck and a beautiful face. I thought, if I can pull this off, he’s gonna look great! I looked and found the color—Red Hot Red with 30-volume peroxide to give it a little kick.”
The result, unfortunately, wasn’t the perfectly coiffed semi-mullet we all know and love. Lussey was mortified when Bowie’s hair just flopped over to one side. Luckily, she had a solution to the problem. Working without benefit of the arsenal of sprays and gels stylists are armed with these days, Suzi tried an anti-dandruff treatment she’d previously used on “the old gals at the salon” that “set hair like stone.” To everyone’s relief, it worked, and all agreed that David’s new look was indeed spectacular.
The hairdresser charged him exactly one English pound for her services (or $1.20 in U.S. dollars today).
The next day, Bowie’s manager called Suzi and, to her surprise, asked her to go on tour with David, which she did. She was Bowie’s hairdresser for the next two years, and eventually married his guitarist, Mick Ronson.
It’s a terrific story, and one that you would expect to hear in a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on the multifaceted career of David Bowie, who died in 2016 at the age of 69 from liver cancer. But you won’t find this anecdote—or any of the standard Wikipedia yadda-yadda— in director Brett Morgen’s highly original and visually explosive new documentary, Moonage Daydream, available on IMAX and in selected theaters.
An intimate portrait of one of rock ’n’ roll’s most enigmatic figures is what ‘Moonage Daydream’ dares to deliver
“When you eliminate the Wikipedia, you arrive at the personal,” Morgen recently told journalist David Lear. And an intimate portrait of one of rock ’n’ roll’s most enigmatic figures is what Moonage Daydream dares to deliver.
Narrated by Bowie himself, via sound bites meticulously edited together from years of archival interviews, the film skips the standard biopic tropes in favor of focusing on the singer’s restless intellectual journey as an artist and cultural seditionist. If you’re looking for gossipy observations about the recording of Station to Station or Aladdin Sane, or cocaine excesses of the Thin White Duke, you won’t find them here.
“I’m trying to articulate those mysterious corners of the mind where there exist grains of truth that we don’t often touch on,” says Bowie during the first hour of the film, “because we don’t have the words to capture them.”
And in many ways that also sums up the ambitions of Moonage Daydream. Filled with Bowie’s genial and erudite observations on art and life, accompanied by splatters of impressionistic images, never-before-seen performance footage, and music gloriously remixed by the singer’s longtime producer and friend, Tony Visconti, the documentary doesn’t so much tell you who the musician is as it guides you through his “mysterious corners” so you can reach your own conclusions.
“Bowie cannot be defined, but he can be experienced,” the director recently told CinemaCon, the largest gathering of movie-theater owners from around the world. “That is why we crafted Moonage Daydream to be a unique cinematic experience.”
And unique it is. Borrowing the dreamlike editing techniques of pioneering experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Kenneth Anger, Morgen envelops the viewer with Bowie’s shape-shifting essence, rather than bludgeoning them with rehashed rock ’n’ roll war stories.
Morgen was granted unprecedented access to Bowie’s extensive archives, which were reportedly bursting with close to 5 million pieces of unseen video, art, poetry, and ephemera. Four years of the film’s seven-year gestation were spent assembling the film, and another 18 months designing the soundscape, animations, and color palette.
During that period, however, the director suffered a massive heart attack, which led him to think of the material he was working with in a whole new light. While the film glides chronologically through the events of Bowie’s career, it focuses more on the artist’s deeper themes of transience, chaos, spirituality, and gender fluidity.
“I realized that, through David, I’d have an opportunity to tell my kids everything that they would need to know how to live a fulfilling life in the 21st century,” said Morgen.
‘Moonage Daydream’ is the closest any of us will ever come to a close encounter with the extraordinary, shapeshifting icon
Now, that’s a heavy burden to lay on anyone—even a big thinker like Bowie. Less hyperbolically, Moonage Daydream offers the singer’s acolytes a window into his creative process, and as a crash course in contemporary art theory, you could do worse.
Like the hippest college professor on the planet, the singer blithely deconstructs each phase of his career, for example summing up his iconic Ziggy Stardust persona as a combination of “classical Kabuki theater, mime technique, and fringe New York music.” Elsewhere, he discusses his use of the 1920s Dadaist “cut-up method” to write lyrics, and how he relied on producer Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies—a card-based method for promoting creativity—to short-circuit his conventional thinking to create the groundbreaking music heard on his celebrated late-1970s Berlin trilogy of Lour, “Heroes,” and Lodger.
On its own merit, Bowie’s heady dialogue might be a bit yawn-inducing to your average rock fan—and some of his more esoteric musings are the last thing you’d expect to hear blaring out of an IMAX screen—but this is where the film’s genius lies. Time and time again, through virtuoso editing, director Morgen showcases Bowie’s dramatic ability to turn dry theory into raw action, through exhilarating music and performances that virtually explode off the screen. Not unlike listening to Einstein explain his Theory of Relativity while watching an atomic bomb detonate, Daydream brilliantly merges the cerebral with the visceral to create a rich and intellectually rewarding visual and sonic experience.
In fact, it could be argued that the central point of Moonage Daydream is that Bowie’s greatest accomplishment was his uncanny ability to take some of the 20th century’s most outlandish avantgarde concepts and bring them to the masses without diluting any of their subversive power.
Just one of many beautiful examples of this alchemy arrives nearly two hours into the film. As Bowie attempts to explain his creative process, he says, “[My art consists of] this inexhaustible supply of extracurricular thoughts that I have that don’t apply to the survival of life, and I’m not quite sure what else to do with them.” As he says this, Morgen presents footage of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust bathed in a riot of confetti. It’s a fantastic image that functions as visually dazzling metaphor for an artist overflowing with concepts, images, and music.
The British figurative painter Francis Bacon once said, “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery. The artist’s job is not to be clear, to be heard fully and understood, or to even be liked. The job of an artist is to deepen the mystery within each person that crosses their path so much that they have no choice but to give up shallowness.”
Ironically, one of the film’s strengths is that it doesn’t feel compelled to completely explain Bowie, allowing space for his general weirdness to simply dazzle and breathe. The singer makes it clear throughout the documentary that much of his music, writing, and imagery came from a subconscious place that even he didn’t fully understand, and that his audience often brought as much to his creations as he did.
“[Ziggy Stardust] is a very simplistic thing—an alien rock star,” said Bowie. “But other people reread him and contributed more information about him that I put into him.... The artist doesn’t exist. The artist is strictly a figment of the people’s imagination.” In much the same way, Moonage Daydream invites the viewer to respond to his alien presence.
However, if I have one issue with Moonage Daydream, it’s that it is perhaps a little too laissez-faire, particularly in the area of Bowie’s groundbreaking gender politics, arguably his most profound contribution to our culture.
When the singer came out as gay in 1972 (which he later revised to bisexual), private homosexual acts between men over 21 had been decriminalized in the U.K. just five years earlier. And shockingly, it wasn’t decriminalized until 2003 in the United States. In the early ’70s, being queer could still get you banned, beaten, or worse. His declaration was extraordinarily dangerous and brave for the time, and for hundreds of thousands, going to a Bowie concert was probably the first time they ever came into contact with—let alone cheered—someone who came out in public as outside the traditional gender binary.
Like Elvis Presley, who brought a new untamed notion of sexuality into U.S. living rooms in the 1950s, Bowie did the same in the 1970s (interestingly, they both share the same birthday). While David was always a little cagey about the exact nature of his appetites, in some ways that was fine. It helped give birth to the even more contemporary concept of “they-ness,” or being gender-fluid.
Initially, Bowie himself was unsure of his orientation, but he was comfortable enough in his otherness to make it part of his public persona. And, God bless him, whether he was really gay, bi, or straight, it was enough to help spark a revolution that continues to this day.
While Moonage Daydream lingers on his radical gender-bending early in the film, unfortunately Bowie himself never really addresses it in any real depth on screen. One would expect someone as sharp as he was to have developed more of a nuanced perspective on his pangender politics as he matured, especially as his “not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” prescience became more accepted. But if his thinking had evolved, Morgen offers very little evidence here.
To be absolutely fair to the filmmaker, Bowie had all but stopped giving interviews after he suffered a heart attack in 2004, and the modern use of gender-neutral pronouns didn’t really come into a broader global conversation until the 2010s. It’s too bad, because it would’ve been fascinating to hear what the singer had to say about it.
Still, Moonage Daydream is the closest any of us will ever come to a close encounter with the extraordinary, shape-shifting icon. And it is sort of thrilling that his weird and restless‘ imagination is on full display in—of all places—suburban IMAX theaters. And any exposure to Bowie is likely to broaden your way of thinking, which is more important than ever in a world whose perspective, in many quarters, appears to be shrinking by the second.
This article originally appeared in a CREEM Special Edition on David Bowie for the release of Moonage Daydream. Explore the entire issue here.