Moonage Daydream is now on Netflix as the first official David Bowie film since his death in 2016. In a special preview published for the cinema release in 2022 with director Brett Morgen, alongside Warner Chappell Music’s Guy Moot and BMG’s Fred Casimir, Music Week explores the thrilling story of a documentary that shows Bowie as never before, and hears their plans to build on the legacy of a music industry innovator from another dimension…
WORDS: ANDRE PAINE
In the six years since David Bowie’s passing, we’ve heard opinions on the otherworldly music icon from fellow artists, broadcasters, writers, celebrities and even political leaders. But now it’s Bowie’s turn to have his say.
Written, directed and edited by Brett Morgen, Moonage Daydream (released September 16) puts Bowie on the big screen in a dazzling, archive–rich documentary film narrated in the artist’s own words based on interviews recorded across the decades. Forget the usual talking heads trying to recall the lyrics to Life On Mars? Here, you get to spend more than two hours inside David Jones’ head, accompanied by an astonishing soundtrack of dozens of tracks mixed from original stems with the assistance of longtime producer Tony Visconti.
As the first official Bowie documentary, it’s a significant moment for several key industry connections, including RZO (representing his estate), Sony Music and Warner Music (label licensees), Warner Chappell Music (who signed a catalogue deal reportedly worth more than $250 million this year), and BMG, who developed the film with Live Nation Productions.
“This is the biggest film project BMG has initiated so far,” says BMG’s EVP global repertoire, Fred Casimir, who highlights the “groundbreaking narrative and unique storytelling”.
“The film and the partnership with Brett Morgen and Live Nation started about five years ago,” he adds. “It was clear that such a comprehensive film about such a complex subject was asking for partners, especially when you do something new in an area that is not your core business.”
BMG represents a 25% interest in the publishing of David Bowie’s songs from 1970 to 1977, including classics such as Starman, Ziggy Stardust and Young Americans.
The film does cover the bulk of his career apart from some of the creative misfires in the 1980s and early ’90s (so no Tin Machine). It can only contribute further to Bowie’s success as a catalogue artist: 16.6 million monthly Spotify listeners and No.1 in the UK for vinyl sales this century.
For Morgen – whose catalogue includes 2015 film Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck – it was a labour of love that dates back to a 2007 meeting with Bowie and RZO’s Bill Zysblat.
“We were provided with access to all of the content in the Bowie archive, which amounted to roughly five million assets,” explains the director in an early morning Zoom call from LA. “That was everything from music video out-takes to complete concerts, journals, artwork, diaries, everything that the estate had.”
An archivist spent five years building up a complete Bowie media library alongside material from the warehouse containing the creative life of David Bowie, an artist who never seemed to discard anything judging by the fascinating ephemera on show at the 2013 V&A exhibition.
“I’m a collector,” muses Bowie in the documentary at one point. “I’ve always seemed to collect personalities and ideas.”
The loosely chronological, kaleidoscopic approach of the film perhaps mirrors the cut–up method Bowie sometimes employed for lyrics.
‘I’m the space invader,’ bawls Bowie on the track that gave the documentary its name. The film itself is a dizzying experience, interweaving the life and work with footage from his films, including Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence and Labyrinth, and the Elephant Man stage play, as well as cinematic classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Red Shoes and A Clockwork Orange to heighten the impact of the songs.
It’s a film in which the departed singer seems to come back to life through the archive interviews and his search for meaning in the endless universe.
Alan Edwards, founder of the Outside Organisation and Bowie’s publicist since the early 1980s (see p57), describes the documentary as “visually beautiful” with an “almost spiritual dynamic to the narrative”.
“It provides a wonderful insight into David’s creative thinking process and highlights what an extraordinary imagination he possessed,” he says. “One of the many interesting things Moonage Daydream illustrates is what a supreme creative risk taker David was.”
For Guy Moot, CEO and co–chair of Warner Chappell Music, the film is a global showcase for Bowie’s songs.
“You’re talking to the man who co–runs the company that just spent a lot of money on the David Bowie catalogue,” he laughs.
Moot confirms that the publishing deal earlier this year was a full acquisition including the writer’s share of classics spanning six decades, including Heroes, Changes, Space Oddity, Rebel Rebel, Golden Years and Ziggy Stardust.
“I think he’s absolutely the gem of all gems,” adds Moot. “The thing is, you keep having to think about Bowie – the creativity, the interpretation of his music. That was the great thing about the man, he was always on the move. There is no one–size–fits–all for David Bowie. With the catalogue, it’s culture, it’s fashion and of course incredible songs – such a diversity of great songs as well.”
The Warner Chappell boss offers high praise for the documentary, too.
“I think what stunned me was that I’ve never really experienced that hysteria for David Bowie,” he says. “And those performances, the footage they got was incredible and the interviews – just being able to watch the fans’ reactions... And then he was talking about his creative process, how he constantly challenged himself. It was to paint, it was to write, it was to travel, it was to put yourself in uncomfortable positions – the German year was pretty intense. The whole thing was fascinating to me.”
Even for diehard fans, Moonage Daydream will feature unfamiliar material, as well as landmark performances such as the Ziggy Stardust tour in 1973, and a soundtrack blasting out in Dolby Atmos.
“The reaction has been extraordinary,” says Casimir. “To be honest, I was not sure whether such a different approach would be consumed easily – let’s not forget it’s a two-and-a-half-hour long rollercoaster ride – but we are very pleased about the enthusiastic reactions everywhere. It’s a testament to the artistry both of David Bowie and Brett Morgen.”
The film, which will be screened in IMAX for its initial week of global release, attempts to capture the power of Bowie’s music and immerse audiences in his creative output rather than biographical detail.
“I had this epiphany that theatres [cinemas] are the best possible place to hear [recorded] music and particularly to experience music in a collective setting,” explains Morgen.
“From the get–go, it was critical that we were working with stems, reimagining and taking music from a stereo environment and putting it into a more immersive, 360 [audio] environment.”
For the music executives on the project, it’s an approach that’s paid off.
“It blew my mind and ears!” says BMG’s Casimir.
The story of how Morgen actually got this project approved goes back to May 2007, which was coincidentally the same month he met Courtney Love to discuss the plan for Montage Of Heck.
“In 2007, a friend of mine was working at Sony BMG and she wanted to do a film with David’s music, but he wasn’t interested in doing a documentary,” recalls Morgen. “So she asked me to come up with a pitch that wouldn’t feel like a documentary. I met David and Bill Zysblat at their office in New York, and we spoke for a couple of hours.”
While Bowie apparently responded favourably to that idea, he was in semi–retirement and not about to consider a project with 50 days of shooting. When he died in 2016, the film collaboration was then revived but in a completely different form.
“Bill [Zysblat] said that David had saved everything and wasn’t sure what to do with all this stuff – he never wanted to make a traditional documentary,” says Morgen. “So when I told him what I was interested in doing, he warmed to it immediately and said, ‘This seems like a perfect synergy’. If I hadn’t met with David in 2007, I don’t think it would have happened.
“I received unconditional support from the estate and their archivist from our first meeting. Bill said, ‘David’s not here to authorise the film, so it’s never going to be David Bowie on David Bowie; it needs to be Brett Morgen on David Bowie, you need to make it your own’. So that was liberating.”
Morgen was always looking at something experimental rather than a jukebox musical like Bohemian Rhapsody.
“The answer was always there in front of me,” he says. “I would have to employ Bowie techniques, because if I did the movie in the manner and fashion of some other more traditional biopics, it wouldn’t be authentic to him.”
Despite its official status, Moonage Daydream doesn’t drift into hagiography. When Bowie goes off the boil in the 1980s, the documentary captures the artist’s increasing ambivalence after moving from RCA to EMI in 1983 in a deal reportedly worth $17.5 million.
While the Let’s Dance album was a global smash, including a UK No.1 with the title track (826,414 post-1994 sales, according to the Official Charts Company), it was the beginning of a creative dip later acknowledged by the artist (“there was no growth going on at all”). A brash 1987 Pepsi commercial with Tina Turner, included in the documentary, typifies this troubling era for Bowie fans.
“He really very quickly changed his thinking about that period,” says Morgen. “That was the only time in his career where he reflected back with any sense of regret, and the regret was not in the music he was creating per se, it was in how he was creating. It was that he succumbed to the fortune, fame and celebrity, and he lost his way for a moment.”
For Morgen, there was little point revisiting the music from that era.
“I ultimately arrived at the idea of using Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide as a commentary on what was happening in that period, and that was a great way to get another Ziggy track in there,” he smiles. “It was also part of the language of the film, which was David having a conversation with himself across time.”
Despite a few dodgy albums in that period, though, Bowie found his way back in the ’90s.
Moot believes it’s an area ripe for exploring under the new Warner Chappell agreement.
“On Team Bowie, as we call it, we have a lot of people who are very passionate about that second half of the catalogue,” he says. “I think there is so much to come out of that.”
Following the substantial investment by Warner Chappell, Moot outlined the Team Bowie strategy for the catalogue to perform for the publisher.
“Ultimately, we would never do something against RZO’s wishes or the estate of David Bowie,” he says. “I think you’re going for a higher calibre of sync client, a high calibre of film script.”
At the same time, Moot says there’s “a myriad of opportunities” in the digital space.
“We had one with Adobe which was a very immersive experience,” he notes. “So we look at the value not just in terms of how much or how long, we look at how it connects to that next generation, how it connects geographically to a wider audience. So value is not just in the present, it is in the long term.”
Moot identifies Latin America and Asia as markets where there’s an opportunity to fully embed Bowie’s songs. And when it comes to sync, Warner Chappell is not just waiting for the right offers.
“We’re not just being a clearing house,” he explains. “Some will naturally come in, but we’re also looking at the right type of high–end brands and having conversations with them about a deeper, meaningful relationship rather than just a one–time [usage].”
A recent UK sync for a B&Q commercial using Sound & Vision might slightly contradict that high–end mission, but Moot praises the creative.
“It was a beautiful ad actually,” he smiles. “I was very impressed [with it].”
Ahead of the Warner Chappell deal bringing Bowie into the publisher, the major’s recordings division cemented its relationship with a worldwide deal for the entire catalogue (post–2000 releases move from Sony to Warner next year).
“We’re very excited by the thought of uniting the post–2000 albums with the catalogue we already control and working on career–spanning campaigns,” says Tom Gallacher, senior director, digital & marketing, Rhino UK.
A comprehensive reissues campaign alongside a birthday celebration in January each year has helped Bowie top UK vinyl sales for the past two years.
Bowie’s vinyl sales for the 2000s of 582,704 (up to the end of 2021) made him the only act other than The Beatles to pass half a million units on the format.
“The Bowie catalogue is one of our strongest physical performers, so we will be working with our commercial team and retail partners on ways we can boost sales,” says Gallacher. “We’ve seen significant lifts in the catalogue of other artists around the release of new documentaries, such as the Biggie doc on Netflix and Tina on Sky/HBO, and we expect this trend to continue with Moonage Daydream.”
Gallacher adds that digital opportunities will be “obvious and immediate” as fans that watch the film then seek out the tracks on DSPs.
“Our job is to use the buzz around the film to make sure that even people who don’t make it to the cinema are thinking about Bowie and exploring his catalogue,” he says.
Rhino plans a combination of social media content, joint marketing with the film company and partnerships with DSPs. Gallacher confirmed the label is working with Morgen on a soundtrack including physical and digital releases.
“We see the film being an important cultural moment which will have appeal beyond the existing fanbase,” he explains. “The joy of tools like Shazam is that they aid discovery and the jump from seeing something on screen – at cinema or at home – to searching for something on your phone is a lot easier than it used to be.”
Rhino has had some major releases this year, including the appearance of the lost Toy album from 2000, in the form of a multi-disc edition (11,790 sales) with a £120 price tag on vinyl.
Two new editions of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, marking its 50th anniversary, helped the LP return to the chart at No.12 in June with 4,331 weekly sales.
“We were very pleased with the Ziggy campaign,” says Gallacher. “We’ve done 5,000 copies of the new vinyl editions and streams of the album are up 30% worldwide following the anniversary due to the way that we were able to engage with DSPs around the date.”
Partnerships included a co–producer commentary by Ken Scott via Spotify’s Music & Talk function, which included a billboard promotion in London’s Leicester Square, and there are plans for an Amazon campaign.
“We are now into the cycle of 50th anniversaries, so all of these key albums will be celebrated,” says Gallacher. “The beauty of working on such an amazing and extensive catalogue is that there are always key dates to be marked, so the Bowie team are always working on the best ways to make sure that everything gets its moment but that the catalogue is managed in a respectful way.”
Twenty years ago, Bowie himself was prophetic on the subject of streaming.
“Music is going to become like running water or electricity,” he said, although even he didn’t foresee TikTok. A Bowie channel launched last year on the video app.
“We’re in this wonderful world of catalogue and discovery like Kate Bush on Stranger Things,” says Moot. “We work closely with TikTok and other platforms to stimulate those moments in an organic way. We take TikTok very seriously.”
In terms of future film projects, there is no Bohemian Rhapsody–style biopic on the cards. But the Warner Chappell boss does tease future film and IP projects based on the catalogue.
“We’re very involved at the Warner Music Group level, where there are film ideas, animation ideas and potential investments following on from this,” he says. “There are two or three things on the horizon that we are already looking to develop between records, publishing and Warner Music Group film investment.”
The metaverse could also be the next stage for Ziggy Stardust.
“The roles and the various stages of Bowie are open to so much creative interpretation, none of this is just a finite story, it has to be reimagined,” adds Moot.
Several decades after his breakthrough, Bowie is arguably as popular as ever.
“A big part of us working with this catalogue is always going to be about introducing new generations to his work,” agrees Moot. “When we looked at this catalogue, we felt it was really something that was timeless, that everybody could find an angle into because of this kind of creative catalyst that is David Bowie’s work – and it’s a global phenomenon as well.”
For BMG’s Casimir, the documentary will tap into those new audiences.
“David Bowie was – and his work still is – a big part of younger people’s search for identity,” he says. “His brave and uncompromising approach to art, his incredible drive for change, and the fact that he challenged us until his last recording tells you how significant this man’s work is. Yes, I am convinced this film will become a classic.
“Anyone who watches it for a few minutes won’t stop watching until the end. I think you will leave the cinema and start digging into the world of David Bowie – so people should be prepared for a wild ride.”
Moonage Daydream doesn’t dwell on the later years and the outpouring of grief in 2016, preferring to focus on Bowie in his pomp.
As the director, Morgen is reluctant to claim that any portrait of this singular artist will be definitive.
“He’s for all time and all ages, and every generation will probably create their own portrait of Bowie, just like any great mythology,” he says. “This will be a story that gets passed down from generation to generation.”
For Guy Moot, the film is a timely reminder of the endless possibilities for the classic songs that Warner Chappell now represents.
“I think you have to stay humble and feel honoured to represent this catalogue, and treat it with the integrity that it deserves, but realise that there is so much more to come out of it,” he smiles in conclusion.
“I don’t think there’s any end. I don’t think there’s any finish line. Bowie’s creativity is an infinite responsibility really.”