This isn't so much a documentary about David Bowie as it is an immersive odyssey through his career. It's chronological on a macro scale, focusing primarily on four periods: Bowie's Ziggy Stardust years in London in the early 1970s; his paranoid stay in Los Angeles in the middle of that decade; his experimental late '70s phase in Berlin; and the mainstream superstardom that came with his 1983 pop album Let's Dance and its disappointing aftermath. (Bowie's 1995 "comeback album" Outside is treated here as a sort of epilogue, even though he would release six more studio LPs after that.) But Moonage Daydream is also peppered with flashbacks and flash-forwards across Bowie's life and work, with extended concert footage; clips from his acting roles in The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hunger, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence; TV interviews; music videos; lots of found footage and random psychedelia.
With the disembodied voice of the late singer acting as the sole narrator, Moonage Daydream is primarily concerned with David Bowie the creative artist; it only barely touches on his personal life and spends much more time on his creative process and his philosophies. As exhausting as the film can be visually, at 2 hours and 14 minutes and seemingly 20,000 cuts (director-producer Brett Morgen also serves the film's editor), there are times when it becomes surprisingly quiet and introspective – even strangely sad.
One throughline of Bowie's work seems to be loneliness, and it's telling that Moonage Daydream has little to say about him after he fell in love with supermodel Iman in 1990. The negative space of the film, as it were, suggests that Bowie's isolation and angst drove his most important work and that a happily married man just doesn't make for a compelling artist. And it may be right: even fans of Bowie's later albums would likely admit that they lack the vitality of Ziggy Stardust or Scary Monsters.
Regardless, Moonage Daydream is a certifiably hypnotic voyage through the mind of David Bowie. As far out as his work could be, I never found him as inscrutable as, say, Prince or Bob Dylan – aside from his wild looks and his various personae, Bowie always struck me as an approachable guy, eager to share his outlook on things – and this film honors that legacy by concerning itself with his ideas and not getting waylaid by biographical trivia. In its own way, it's a very inspirational movie. I think Bowie would have felt honored.