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A portrait of David Bowie as an alienated artist

The last time I saw David Bowie, in many ways the definitive rock star of my generation, who died in 2016, he was cheating on him with another pop artist. We were on a rooftop in Williamsburg. Journalists, musicians and those who had gathered on that late spring afternoon in 2006 to watch television on the radio performed a short set from their second album, the eclectic and catchy “Return to Cookie Mountain”. I had fallen head over heels for the group’s co-lead vocalist, Tunde Adebimpe, with his thick glasses, sweet demeanor, and idiosyncratic voice. Sometimes Adebimpe sounds like a stoned drill sergeant and other times like a kid on the verge of adolescence. Like Bowie, he is what I call a character singer: someone who sings in the imaginary voice of the character in a song. That night, the group put on a strong set, and when I wasn’t looking at Adebimpe, I was looking at Bowie. Standing in the middle of the crowd, beer in hand, the fifty-nine-year-old star moved nimbly to the beat of the music. He was a husband and father for the second time, but age had done nothing to dampen his seeming enthusiasm for the new, especially if he was off-kilter and unarguably himself, like television on the radio.

After hearing the band’s first EP, Bowie had called one of the guitarists, Dave Sitek, to tell him he was a fan, and when Sitek impulsively invited Bowie to play on the group’s second album, he agreed. His voice on the song “Province,” on “Return to Cookie Mountain,” is among the best of his last run: rounded, tired, alive. They work within the group’s edgy trance style, but 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 concerned with maintaining and increasing their fame than sharing it. But like Prince and Linda Ronstadt, stars who used their wild appeal to promote less visible artists, usually women or people of color, Bowie often sought out artists who, for one reason or another, were weird like himself but lacked of his genius. to read the room (or the stadium or the rooftop) to see what was going on and how to capitalize on it. And he rarely shied away from criticizing an industry that didn’t always give every music artist a chance. In 1983, he criticized MTV for not featuring black artists at a time when almost no one cared about diversity.

Bowie didn’t give a shit. But his love for the mischievous spirit of others, his collaborative impulses, his parental instincts, all cloaked in his own particular abnormal flag, are not very apparent in Brett Morgen’s new documentary “Moonage Daydream,” which instead fills space. display with visual bombast. Morgen has a nose for many things, but moderation and subtlety are not among them. I loved his 2002 documentary on film producer Robert Evans, “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” not only for its clever use of visual effects and stock footage, but for its understanding, drawn from Evans’ 1994 documentary. autobiography— that the pre-blockbuster Hollywood it evoked was framed by sleaze, glamor 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 over two decades (about a hundred years in normal time) and not touch on the dirty dressing rooms, the record company problems, the disgruntled bandmates? or the constant loneliness, that is, the reality that he had to deal with? Instead, Morgen gives us a kind of sanctified intellectual portrait: Bowie as Moses, dictating what art is and what it requires. Bowie’s pronouncements on Nietzsche and Buddhism, without dimming his sly charm, are not only pretentious but suffocating. Like Evans, Bowie was the consummate showman, but, except in some early archival footage, Morgen barely shows him playing.

From the start, Bowie was an artist who got ahead of the industry’s ADHD both by addressing his own expendability, on songs like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “Fame,” and by aligning himself with others who, like him, had broken the walls between “real” art and the pop world. (From Bowie’s 1971 song “Andy Warhol”: “Andy Warhol looks like a scream / Hang it on my wall / Andy Warhol, Silver Screen / I can’t tell them apart at all.”) I live in the imagination of his fans. And then there was his disdain for male privilege and his explorations of gender, the joy he expressed at the idea of ​​being non-binary in a binary world. No matter what you’ve been through because of your non-binary feelings, songs like “Rebel Rebel” made you want to celebrate and dance with them: “You’ve got your mother in a whirlwind / ‘Cause she’s not sure if you’re a boy or girl / Hey, baby, your hair is fine / Hey, baby, let’s go out tonight / You like me and I like everything”. Bowie liked everything, or seemed to accept everything, and it wasn’t that part of the spirit 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 artificiality, and Bowie’s ethic was 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 inspired their albums “Young Americans” (1975) and “Let’s Dance” (1983). Part of Bowie’s appeal in a pre-PC world was the way that, while he took a lot from soul, he never tried to pass himself off as an engineer of the genre. He referred to “young Americans” as “the crushed remnants of ethnic music surviving in the era of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey,” and allegedly 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 was not exhausting, he could still get us moving with albums like “Low” (1977), “Heroes” (1977) and “Lodger” (1979), but the work became more complex as he found new sounds for convey your thoughts. Inspired by the brilliant inventions of Brian Eno, as well as German experimental artists like Neu! and Tangerine Dream, Bowie began composing much of his music in the studio, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. (Drugs help, and Bowie’s cocaine use 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 quick cuts and Bowie’s voice playing over and over again, “Moonage Daydream” is strangely inert, with only occasional flashes of Bowie’s personality, his fascinating combination of British formality, eccentricity and wit. . Morgen’s dream is that he is the only person who really understands Bowie, and the main thing he supposedly understands is how alienated Bowie was, both by nature and by inclination. But don’t most, if not all, modern artists keep the world at a distance, to best describe it? If Morgen had included other voices talking about Bowie (friends, colleagues), he might have introduced some critical research to broaden the star’s portrait of him. getting off the topic from time to time, without losing sight of it, was what made Morgen’s 2015 film, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” so interesting. You can’t completely trust artists to tell their own stories; it’s always “Rashomon”, so why not reveal the lies, fabrications and forgotten moments as well?

Like Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, Morgen likes to play with nonfiction form; he wants his documentaries to have the weight and possibility of fiction. But why create such a limited story about a man who dedicated himself to inventing so many characters and stories of his own? In “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie becomes something of a disfigured presence, less the creator of dreams and the keeper of the mysteries that enclose them, than Morgen’s idea of ​​what a rock star is, or should be. and roll. . In a 1972 article 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.” In reality, the reality of Bowie was always there, hidden in plain sight. In my opinion, it wasn’t coldness or alienation of the sort that seems to interest Morgen, but an all-pervasive loneliness that was at the heart of much of his music, and perhaps the reason he kept reaching out to or defending everyone. those other artists and listeners who knew more than a little about the difference. ♦

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