David Bowie was a rock star. No argument there. Beyond that, categories may vary. Rock stardom was the necessary but far from sufficient condition for his career. Was Bowie a pioneer? Poseur? Hero? Chameleon? Visionary? Explorer? Opportunist? Metaphysician? Kabuki act with stacked amps and multiple costume changes? Bowie himself might have gone with that last one. In “Moonage Dream,” he speaks admiringly of kabuki and notes its strong influence on him.
What makes Bowie such a rich subject for Brett Morgen’s documentary (the title comes from a track on Bowie’s 1972 album, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”) is how all those roles are on display. Where things get tricky is in assigning priority.
Morgen has made rock ’n’ roll documentaries: “Crossfire Hurricane” (2012), about the Rolling Stones, and “Cobain: Montage of Heck” (2015), about the Nirvana leader. Morgen has made a documentary with an unusual, distinctive approach: “Chicago 10″ (2007), about the Chicago Seven trial, is animated. He’s made documentaries about unusual, distinctive people, most notably the very entertaining “The Kid Stays in the Picture” (2002), about film producer Robert Evans, and the excellent “Jane” (2017), about primatologist Jane Goodall.
A director experienced with rock ‘n’ roll, unusual and distinctive approaches, and unusual and distinctive individuals: Now that is a director well prepared for David Bowie.
“Moonage Daydream” is playing in theaters, including several with IMAX. You might expect a nature documentary to screen in IMAX, but not a rock ’n’ roll one. Morgen’s immersive, sometimes convulsive, visual approach justifies the format. This is filmmaking that’s anything but chaste. Intentionally overwhelming, “Moonage Daydream” is indulgent and overproduced — which suits its subject. Bowie fans should consider seeing it in IMAX, though civilians might find that a mite much.
The immersiveness takes several forms. The documentary is almost all Bowie, pretty much all the time. There’s no narrator or talking-head interviews. Other than interviewers in period television appearances, a few fans, and a sentence or two from his mum, only Bowie is heard from.
The fans are important. Even by rock-star standards, there’s a tremendous, sometimes even troubling sense of connection between Bowie and the audience. The category they might assign him to is . . . god? Don’t laugh — Bowie wouldn’t. “I wanted to define the archetype, messiah/rock star,” we hear him say. “That’s all I wanted to do.” Rarely has the word “all” borne such a burden of meaning or aspiration.
“Moonage Daydream” mostly covers the period from the early ‘70s up through the 1983 Serious Moonlight Tour. The Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane phases predominate: Bowie as glam-androgynous transgressor. Add that to the list of categories. But the documentary is in no way chronological. Neither locales nor dates are given for the interviews or concert footage, and there’s lots and lots of concert footage. The film proceeds in an impressionistic, associative fashion.
“Moonlight Daydream” has surprises to offer. A pompous interviewer, taken aback by Bowie’s platform heels, asks what the shoes might signify. “They’re shoe shoes, silly,” an amused Bowie chides him. Long before fedoras became a hipster fetish, he would seem to have had a penchant for them. Bowie does a Buster Keaton impersonation. He and Tina Turner do a Pepsi commercial. In Indonesia, he listens with visible pleasure to a gamelan performance. Morgen is fond of showing Bowie traveling, the one instance where the lack of description is annoying.
Clips from Bowie’s several movie appearances go unidentified (it’s hard to imagine anyone better for the lead in “The Man Who Fell to Earth”). Easier to place is his Broadway turn, in “The Elephant Man.” Also unidentified are snippets from various non-Bowie movies, included as cultural markers: the original “Nosferatu,” “Metropolis,” “The Red Shoes,” “The Seventh Seal,” “2001.” Their presence indicates how seriously Morgen takes Bowie, as does his opening the documentary with a quote from that famous rock ’n’ roll animal Friedrich Nietzsche.
The closest thing to a timeline are Bowie’s ever-altering outfits and hairstyles. Morgen wants to put viewers in the moment, even — no, especially — when that moment took place half a century ago. He also wants to put viewers in his subject’s presence. The camera very much cooperates. Eventually, Bowie would marry a supermodel, Iman. She’s momentarily glimpsed, almost two hours into the movie. Supermodel could have been a Bowie category, too: that scarecrow physique, those fine features, the withering gaze. (In fairness, he had a marvelous grin, though it’s very rarely seen here.) Also part of the package was that curl in his voice, never far from a snarl. Really, in his well-groomed, self-possessed strangeness, Bowie could have been a Bond villain’s illegitimate son. No, that one does not qualify as a category.
The final song heard on the soundtrack is, appropriately, “Changes.” Stick around after it’s over. There’s one final bit of Bowie audio, and it’s worth hearing. No less appropriately, Morgen has given him the final word.
Written and directed by Brett Morgen. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 134 minutes. PG-13 (some sexual images/nudity, brief strong language, smoking).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.