A Portrait of David Bowie as an Alienated Artist

The last time I saw David Bowie—in many ways, the ultimate rock star for my generation—who died in 2016, I was cheating on him with another pop artist. We were on a rooftop in Williamsburg. Journalists, musicians, and the like had gathered on that late-spring evening in 2006 to watch TV on the Radio perform a short set from their second album, the eclectic and catchy “Return to Cookie Mountain.” I had fallen hard for the group’s co-lead vocalist, Tunde Adebimpe, with his thick spectacles, sweet demeanor, and idiosyncratic voice. Sometimes Adebimpe sounds like a stoned drill sergeant, and at other times like a kid on the brink of adolescence. Like Bowie, he is what I call a character singer—someone who sings in the imagined voice of the character in a song. That night, the group performed a strong set, and when I wasn’t watching Adebimpe I was looking at Bowie. Standing in the middle of the crowd, clutching a beer, the then fifty-nine-year-old star was lithe, moving to the music. He was a husband and a father for the second time, but age had done nothing to dim his apparent enthusiasm for the new, especially if it was off-center and indisputably itself, like TV on the Radio.

After hearing the band’s first EP, Bowie had called one of the guitarists, Dave Sitek, to say that he was a fan, and when Sitek impulsively invited Bowie to perform on the group’s second album he agreed. His vocals on the song “Province,” on “Return to Cookie Mountain,” are among the finest of his late career—rounded, weary, alive. They work within the group’s jittery trance style, but they also convey the depth of Bowie’s experience as a vocalist and his willingness—his desire—to collaborate with lesser-known musicians. Popular artists are more often preoccupied with maintaining and increasing their fame than with sharing it. But, like Prince and Linda Ronstadt, stars who used their tremendous appeal to promote less visible performers—generally women or people of color—Bowie often sought out artists who, for one reason or another, were outsiders like him, but who lacked his genius for reading the room (or stadium or rooftop) to see what was happening and how to capitalize on it. And he rarely shied away from criticizing an industry that didn’t always give every musical artist a chance. In 1983, he called out MTV for not playing Black artists, at a time when hardly anyone gave a damn about diversity.

Bowie gave a damn. But his love of the rogue spirit in others, his collaborative urges, his paternal instincts—all of it wrapped in his own particular freak flag—aren’t much in evidence in Brett Morgen’s new documentary, “Moonage Daydream,” which instead fills the screen with visual bombast. Morgen has a nose for many things, but moderation and subtlety are not among them. I loved his 2002 documentary about the film producer Robert Evans, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” not only because of its clever use of visual effects and archival footage but because of its understanding—drawn from Evans’s 1994 autobiography—that the pre-blockbuster Hollywood it evoked was framed by sleaze, glamour, and lies. But there is little of that kind of understanding in “Moonage Daydream.” How can you make a documentary about a star who dominated the rock-and-roll world for more than two decades (a hundred years or so in regular time) and not touch on the filthy dressing rooms, the record-company hassles, the disgruntled bandmates, or the constant loneliness—that is, the reality that he had to contend with? Instead, Morgen gives us a kind of sanctified intellectual portrait: Bowie as Moses, laying down commandments about what art is and what it demands. Bowie’s pronouncements about Nietzsche and Buddhism, untempered by his sly charm, come off as not just pretentious but suffocating. Like Evans, Bowie was a consummate showman, but, except in some early archival footage, Morgen barely shows him at play.

From the first, Bowie was an artist who preëmpted industry A.D.H.D. both by addressing his own disposability, in songs like “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide” and “Fame,” and by aligning himself with others who, like him, had broken down the walls between “real” art and the pop world. (From Bowie’s 1971 song “Andy Warhol”: “Andy Warhol looks a scream / Hang him on my wall / Andy Warhol, Silver Screen / Can’t tell them apart at all.”) His mastery of stagecraft and personae also helped keep him alive in his fans’ imaginations. And then there was his disdain for male privilege and his explorations of gender, the joy he expressed at the idea of being nonbinary in a binary world. No matter what you may have suffered because of your nonbinary feelings, songs like “Rebel Rebel” made you want to celebrate and dance to them: “You’ve got your mother in a whirl / ’Cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl / Hey, babe, your hair’s alright / Hey, babe, let’s stay out tonight / You like me and I like it all.” Bowie did like it all, or seemed to accept it all, and wasn’t that part of the ethos of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, on his 1972 glam-rock album, “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”?

If Bowie could be someone else, so could you. But you had to be honest to get away with the artificiality, and Bowie’s ethics were always honest, never more so than when he donned a zoot suit and began writing and performing his own version of Gamble and Huff—what he called “plastic soul”—which informed his albums “Young Americans’’ (1975) and “Let’s Dance” (1983). Part of Bowie’s allure in a pre-P.C. world was the way that, although he borrowed heavily from soul, he never tried to pass himself off as an engineer of the genre. He referred to “Young Americans” as “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey,” and he reportedly gave Nile Rodgers, the co-founder of Chic, a lot of credit for the success of “Let’s Dance,” one of the biggest hits of his career. Bowie’s intellectualism wasn’t exhausting—he could still make us move with albums like “Low” (1977), “Heroes” (1977), and “Lodger” (1979)—but the work grew more complex as he found new sounds to convey his thoughts. Inspired by Brian Eno’s brilliant inventions, as well as by German experimental performers such as Neu! and Tangerine Dream, Bowie started composing a lot of his music in the studio, which isn’t as easy as it seems. (Drugs help, and Bowie’s cocaine intake during the making of his 1976 album, “Station to Station,” was prodigious.)

Bowie’s career was one of constant evolution and experimentation. But, despite Morgen’s fast cuts, and Bowie’s voice going on and on, “Moonage Daydream” is strangely inert, with only occasional flashes of Bowie’s personality, his fascinating combination of British formality, eccentricity, and wit. Morgen’s daydream is that he’s the only person who truly gets Bowie, and foremost among the things he supposedly understands is how alienated Bowie was, as much by nature as by inclination. But don’t most, if not all, modern artists keep the world at a distance, the better to describe it? If Morgen had included other voices talking about Bowie—friends, colleagues—he could have introduced some critical inquiry to expand his portrait of the star. Getting off the subject from time to time, without losing sight of him, was what made Morgen’s 2015 film, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” so interesting. You can’t entirely trust artists to tell their own stories; it’s always “Rashomon,” so why not reveal the lies and fabrications and misremembered moments, too?

Like Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Morgen enjoys messing with the nonfiction form; he wants his documentaries to have the heft and the possibility of fiction. But why fashion such a limited story about a man who made it his job to invent so many characters and stories of his own? In “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie becomes a kind of disfigured presence, less the creator of dreams—and the keeper of the mysteries that go into them—than Morgen’s idea of what a rock-and-roll star is, or should be. In a 1972 piece for this magazine, Ellen Willis questioned Bowie’s authenticity. “Bowie doesn’t seem quite real,” she wrote. “Real to me, that is—which in rock and roll is the only fantasy that counts.” Actually, Bowie’s reality was always there, hiding in plain sight. To my mind, it wasn’t coldness or alienation of the kind that seems to interest Morgen but a pervasive loneliness that was at the heart of so much of his music, and perhaps the reason that he kept reaching out to, or defending, all those other artists and listeners who knew more than a little about difference. ♦

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