David Bowie Hated Los Angeles. A New Film, ‘Moonage Daydream,’ Gets Into His Feelings And Reasons
Moonage Daydream tells David Bowie’s story largely through his own words, a film built around thoughtful interview excerpts and his magnetic performances. And some of those words express mixed emotions about Los Angeles — with loathing, at least initially, at the top.
“Bowie hated Los Angeles. Probably moreso than any place that he traveled,” Brett Morgen, the film’s director, told us. “However, he did come here for inspiration.”
Moonage Daydream is unlike the standard music documentary or biopic. That’s because Morgen focuses on getting across a combination of Bowie’s life philosophy and the power of his music. Since the era Morgen covers includes when Bowie spent significant time in L.A., the city plays a role too. Bowie moved here in the mid-1970s, wondering whether L.A. would affect his writing. He even describes himself as a “foreign body” entering this new space.
“And in L.A., he found the inspiration to produce some of his most noted albums,” Morgen said.
The album Station to Station was recorded during his time in L.A. That time also produced his infamous Thin White Duke persona, which included a fascination with fascism.
While living here, he went to New Mexico to film The Man Who Fell To Earth, playing a star role as he pushed his own creative boundaries.
“One of the things that I really admire about David is he, his choices were often about putting himself in environments and situations where he could learn and grow,” Morgen said. “He wasn’t the greatest actor, he wasn’t the greatest dancer, he wasn’t the greatest painter. But at a point where he was world-renowned, he was willing to explore those areas. And unfortunately, very few artists are willing to risk their legacy by venturing into uncharted waters. What I learned from David is, virtuosity is overrated.”
The City's Drug Culture
The film leaves out any obvious references to a major piece of the puzzle: Bowie’s cocaine addiction, which shaped much of his time in L.A. and the work that came out of it. Instead, Morgen uses psychedelic imagery and a manic editing style filled with cuts to indicate Bowie’s headspace at the time, as well as including interviews where Bowie is less coherent than elsewhere in the film.
While Bowie fell deep into addiction when living in L.A., partaking in a lively drug culture, he was able to put that aside and focus while in the recording studio.
“So I would say that he used Los Angeles, more than he allowed Los Angeles to use him — which is what happens to most people,” Morgen said.
One of Bowie’s biggest singles of all time, “Fame,” topped the charts while he was here. During the Station to Station sessions, he also recorded the classic hit, “Golden Years.”
Those Southern California experiences were a precursor to what ended up being one of his most creative periods. After that album, he moved to Europe and got clean, going on to record what became known as his Berlin Trilogy.
“When he was in L.A., he was still writing… they were still songs. He was writing songs. They were good songs. What happened in Berlin was earth-shattering, game-changer,” Morgen said.
‘The Tao Of Bowie’
The documentary follows Bowie during his iconic 1970s Ziggy Stardust period, into the '80s and the broadening of his audience. Other periods in his life — including his death in 2016 — are touched on, which Morgen said was to show connections throughout Bowie’s life.
“It’s not an attempt to catalog every recording David ever did,” Morgen said. “I’m not making Behind The Music, where the connections don’t exist — it’s just this happened, this happened, and then this happened.”
Instead, the story was built around the topics that Bowie himself cared about and that he spoke about at different points in his life.
“I created different modules of audio bites that were thematically linked — to mortality, time, chaos, fragmentation, gender fluidity,” Morgen said. “‘The Tao of Bowie’ was one of my bins.”
While making the film, Morgen faced his own mortality.
“Right as I was beginning to listen to all the material, I had a heart attack,” Morgen said. “And I’m 47. And it was from that vantage point that I started to receive the media. And so the kind of philosophy, which is mainly about a guide to how to make the most out of each day, deeply resonated. And at a certain point, I decided that’s the film I wanted to make.”
Morgen credits the philosophy he found through Bowie for both nursing him back to health and giving him a compass he can use for the rest of his life.
Gender Play In A Pre-Pronoun-Friendly World
While some of Bowie’s philosophy may have seemed ahead of its time, Morgen said that he doesn’t really think Bowie was a futurist. Instead, he sees Bowie as someone who was sensitive to things that the rest of the world couldn’t see yet.
That included Bowie’s bold experimentation with his public persona, taking on characters that threw out traditional gender lines.
“I think in the days before the Internet, and particularly at the time that Bowie came onto the scene, where people were still getting prosecuted for being gay, he almost defiantly embraced it,” Morgen said. “As a result, because there was nobody else in the mainstream signaling that this was normal, he became the flagbearer. And really, up until some point in the mid-'80s when we started to see some more proper representations — but up until that point, I think for many generations, he was it. And made us all feel like it was OK to be ourselves.”
Morgen designed the introduction of Ziggy Stardust in the film to be larger than life, meant to give the audience a sense of the impact that character had.
“The first scene of Ziggy was designed to feel like you’re in church, and that the worshippers were gathering at the altar,” Morgen said. “I was trying to establish from the very beginning this Ziggy as prophet, and the relationship between him and his fans became key — because they were the ones who were creating Ziggy, more than David, really.”
When Bowie began to shift into a more commercial aesthetic in the 1980s and stopped pushing those same boundaries, that relationship with his fans changed. Morgen said that, in the film, it was “important to telegraph in the early stages how closely aligned David was with his audience, in juxtaposition to what would happen in the '80s, when it basically became a generic rock audience. And he would talk about looking out from the stage and thinking that he was at a Phil Collins concert.”
How Moonage Daydream Wraps You In The Music
Morgen has worked in the rock doc space before, directing films about Kurt Cobain and the Rolling Stones. But he wanted to do something completely different with Moonage Daydream.
“Bowie was designed to be an experience. So it was like trying to drive a car backwards. It required me to forget everything that I knew. None of my tried and true ways of filmmaking were going to help me through Moonage,” Morgen said.
Making a feature documentary about Bowie gave him the chance to give the music an epic movie theater treatment.
“The sole starting point for the film was to be able to listen to my favorite music in Dolby Atmos, and in 12.0,” Morgen said.
Morgen credits his own background in sound design as helping him to put together this film. He wanted to be able to “wrap [the music] around the room,” which led to one of his early decisions: only working with music where he had access to the original separate tracks that went into the recording, known as stems.
To create that enveloping sound experience, he worked with sound designer Paul Massey and Massey’s sound design team. Massey previously worked on the Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. Morgen wanted to make sure that, wherever you are in the theater, you’re getting what’s meant to be heard.
“There is no reference point. There is no front, south, north, west, bottom barrel — it’s just, you’re inside of it, almost like a theme park ride,” Morgen said.
What Comes Next For The Filmmaker
After embracing the way sound and picture can work together in this latest music documentary, Morgen’s ready to try something entirely different.
“If I was a bit bolder, I wouldn’t make another film,” Morgen said. “I think one of my takeaways from David is that we don’t advance the ball when we’re in a comfortable situation.”
That means he’s not planning to do any more archival films and isn’t interested in making another music film, for now. “I feel that whatever time I have left, I want to follow David’s lead and try to make every day as adventurous, and exciting,” he said.
Moonage Daydream is in theaters now.