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'Moonage Daydream' isn't the Bowie biography you're probably expecting

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPACE ODDITY")

DAVID BOWIE: (Singing) Ground Control to Major Tom.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There have been lots of documentaries about David Bowie, and many of them have the same trappings. Interviews of people close to him - check. Omniscient narrator - check. Album covers - check. The new film "Moonage Daydream" has none of the above.

BRETT MORGEN: The thing that has always interested me was making films that aren't so much about the subject but films that can personify the subject.

SHAPIRO: Brett Morgen is the movie's writer, director and editor. This is the first film since Bowie's death in 2016 that had the full cooperation of the artist's estate. So Morgen had more than 5 million items from the Bowie archive to weave together. He spent years going through old press clips, videos, recordings. And I asked him whether there was one that served as a key to unlock the project.

MORGEN: Yeah. You know, there are several things that come to mind. The first day that I was working on the film, Tony Visconti, David's longtime producer, invited me to his studio in Manhattan, where David recorded "Blackstar," to listen to some music stems. And the first thing he presented to me was a song called "Cygnet Committee," which David had recorded, I think, in '69. And in this song, towards the crescendo of the song, David sings, I want to live. I want to live. I want to live.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CYGNET COMMITTEE")

BOWIE: (Singing) I want to live. I want to live. I want to live.

MORGEN: And when Tony muted all the instrumentation, you could hear David sobbing, almost wailing between vocals. And this was a man who was 19 years old. And he was at the very beginning of his life. And it sounded like someone who was having light pulled from them in their last moments. And it was in that moment that I recognized and realized that this man had a zest and appreciation for the brevity of life from the very beginning and set about to make his life as adventurous and exciting as anyone who's ever lived on Earth. He was so present in each moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MOONAGE DAYDREAM")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you indulge in any form of worship?

BOWIE: Life. I love life very much indeed.

SHAPIRO: His passion for life comes through so vividly throughout this movie. We have this archetype of the tortured genius, and Bowie so often talks about making the most of each day, about savoring experience. Do you think his life disproves the idea that to create great art, you have to suffer?

MORGEN: I think that Bowie created some of the best music of his life towards the end of his life. And I'm not referring to "Blackstar." I'm referring to "Outside" and "Heathen" and "Reality." And he was probably at the most peaceful and serene place. So not necessarily, no, I don't think so. He found a different entry point to access his creativity.

SHAPIRO: One thing he said that really jumped out to me was, by enjoying the process, you create a dream come true.

MORGEN: It's beautiful, isn't it?

SHAPIRO: It's also the opposite of the tortured genius, right? It's not, like, starve and bully yourself into producing something great. It's like, relish it.

MORGEN: Yeah. I mean, when I was trying to figure out how to structure a non-biographical experience, I was absolutely traumatized and tortured because I had no idea how to do it.

SHAPIRO: You should be more like Bowie.

MORGEN: Well, we should all be more like Bowie, but unfortunately, we're not all born with some of those gifts.

SHAPIRO: In your life, how did immersing yourself in all things Bowie for years change you? Like, did he show up in your dreams? Did you start quoting him at dinner parties? How did you emerge different?

MORGEN: Well, right at the beginning of the project, I was in pre-production for a pilot of Marvel. And we were gathering all of the materials from David's archive. And I had a massive heart attack. I flatlined. I was in a coma for a week. And the first thing I said to the surgeon when I regained consciousness - and someone told me it was a Saturday - was, I have to be at work on Monday. And I pulled the plugs out two days later, and for the next four months, acted like nothing had happened to me. I was totally out of control.

And it was from that station that I began to absorb and experience the Bowie archive. And I was trying to figure out how to put my life together and how to find some sort of balance in how I was living my life. And here was David kind of offering me this guide to how to lead a more balanced and fulfilling life in this age of chaos and fragmentation. And not only was I recovering from my heart attack, but we were in a pandemic when I was constructing the film. So I was totally isolated for two years. And because of the heart attack, I - before the vaccines came out, I couldn't be around anyone, including my children.

So I was physically locked in a building by myself, trying to make a film about an artist whose stock in trade was being created in isolation. And I started to receive those messages. I knew that I would never direct fiction again, that I was not going to take my family at risk like that, and I needed to find another way to approach my work. I needed to find another entry point. So David's impact on my life and my art, it's very unlikely I'll never make another music film, and it's very unlikely that I will make another archival film.

SHAPIRO: I wondered if this is just one among many, like, oh, you know, you did Kurt Cobain, you did David Bowie, you'll do the next one, or if this is a fundamental turning point for you, if this is some kind of - I don't know - mountaintop.

MORGEN: It's not the mountaintop because I don't know if this film's any better than anything else I've created. But what I do know is that I feel too comfortable and safe in my edit room.

SHAPIRO: Bowie says you have to swim out till your feet can't touch the bottom anymore.

MORGEN: So I swam into the Arctic for this film. So I think this - it was absolutely the most challenging assignment of my career, and to try to do it again wouldn't serve me much. So I'm taking my cues, my inspirations from David. And I have a new kind of zest for work and for life and for family and for what time I have left.

SHAPIRO: Well, I hate to put you in this position, but would you like to choose a track for us to go out on?

MORGEN: I think you should go out with "Conversation Piece." Yeah. I was going to try to explain why, but in a pure, perfect Bowie way, I'm not going to explain it.

SHAPIRO: You're just going to let it speak for itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONVERSATION PIECE")

BOWIE: (Singing) I'm a thinker, not a talker. I've no one to talk to anyway. I can't see the road for the rain in my eyes.

SHAPIRO: Brett Morgen, the creator of the new film "Moonage Daydream," thank you so much.

MORGEN: Thank you.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And "Moonage Daydream" is in theaters now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONVERSATION PIECE")

BOWIE: (Singing) I live above the grocer's store, owned by an Austrian. He often calls me down to eat. And he jokes about his broken English. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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