An ecstatic voyage through the creative and spiritual universe of David Bowie, Moonage Daydream is a fittingly unclassifiable tribute to the shape-shifting rock iconoclast and his singular sound and vision. Exploding the conventions of the music documentary, director Brett Morgen remixes dazzling, never-before-seen footage of the artist throughout his career, reveling in his otherworldly presence while revealing the restless philosophical inquiry that guided his myriad metamorphoses. Graced with soulful narration by Bowie, this immersive audiovisual head rush transmits the essence of a phenomenon that cannot be explained—only experienced.
Brett Morgen’s documentary/tribute to David Bowie, Moonage Daydream, receives a 4K UHD edition from The Criterion Collection and is delivered in 10-bit SDR on a triple-layer disc. It is technically presented in multiple aspect ratios but has a base of 1.78:1. Criterion also includes a 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation on a standard dual-layer Blu-ray disc. Both come from the same 4K master supplied by Neon.
The film isn’t one that I would say is an obvious contender for 4K (despite being released in IMAX), but for what it is and how it was assembled, it does look rather good, or at least as good as I suspect it can. It is constructed primarily from archival footage (alongside animations that I think were created exclusively for the film), all of which are sourced from numerous forms of media captured through the decades, from analog video (some from pre-existing digital transfers) to digital to film, all of varying quality. This includes, according to Morgen in the optional commentary, fifth-generation VHS. Some of these lower-quality analog and standard-definition videos don’t look all that bad in the end but still only look as good as it will allow.
High-definition and 4K footage do, unsurprisingly, come out looking better, but again, it’s all limited to the quality of the original material. The film makes use of a lot of film clips, which includes a lot of Bowie’s work (like <I>Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence</I> and <I>The Man Who Fell to Earth</I>) alongside other films Bowie had nothing to do with, ranging from Murnau’s Nosferatu to (quite randomly) Event Horizon. I have to assume the footage from those films comes from whatever digital masters the filmmakers’ obtained, with some of these masters having clearly gone through heavy filtering. Then, other film clips show a healthy level of detail with a beautiful, grainy texture that is rendered nicely, if not perfectly. And then there is the footage shot digitally, some of which looks impeccable with a staggering level of detail, the rest coming off a bit noisy or fuzzy.
When the image looks good, though, it looks terrific, and the encode does look strong. A sequence featuring Bowie going up and down escalators later in the film shows some great detail with excellent gradations in the shadows. Filmed footage that I suspect was scanned directly for this movie looks very clean and sharp with a healthy-looking grain, and the animations and various effects scattered about also come out looking sharp and clean, with no noticeable distortions or digital anomalies. Black levels are rich and deep, with a broad color range despite the lack of HDR. Again, there may be better candidates for the format, but the film takes advantage of it when needed.
The film is more of an experience, and the Dolby Atmos presentation amply supports that. My set-up is a 5.1.2 configuration, with the Atmos speakers in the front, but even then, I still found it all very immersive. I’ll admit that, at first, I was a little disappointed with how the music was mixed, as though it wasn’t taking full advantage of the format, but as the film progressed, it did get better. I also appreciated it all more after listening to the included commentary and watching the feature around the audio mix, which gets into the difficulties of adapting Bowie’s music to Atmos. A lot is going on outside of the film's music, too, and there are times when the mix becomes very aggressive in terms of effects, all of it spiraling around the viewer for significant impact. I also liked how the sounds from his audiences at concerts were mixed (despite the audio being recreated, as the included featurette reveals). Range is extensive, and I don’t recall any heavy damage or distortion outside of the limitations baked into the archival material used throughout the film.
In short, it sounds really good.
Despite some good material, the special features feel slim considering the film’s subject matter. The best addition is, somewhat surprisingly, an audio commentary provided by director Brett Morgen. I wasn’t expecting much from it, figuring Morgen would settle on explaining his choices around archival footage and music. There is, of course, a lot of that, but the track feels very personal. The film obviously means a lot to Morgen, and it becomes evident why near the end when Morgen shares a life-changing event that drove him to make the film (I’ll avoid spoilers if that’s what it can be called, but it does come up in a Q&A found elsewhere in the features). This helps make the track far more engaging than I was expecting, with some additional details about the film's technical challenges also helping, especially regarding the film’s sound design and mixing the songs for Atmos. Stories about searching for the footage that appears throughout the film also prove interesting, including one about the footage sourced from a straight-to-video promotional documentary, Ricochet, which was only ever released on VHS. Morgen was insistent on finding the original film materials where possible. Ricochet proved difficult as it is one of the more obscure Bowie-related films, and nobody seemed to care much for it (it was from Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight Tour,” which the musician considered the low point of his career). No one even seemed to know if the materials still existed. Yet, incredibly, Morgen was able to track the 16mm negatives down (mislabeled in the archive), and they were able to do a restoration and use that in the film. It all proves rather fascinating, with the personal aspect keeping it all engaging.
The 4K disc then includes the film’s original trailer, presented in 4K. A high-def version of the trailer is found on the standard Blu-ray, along with all of the releases’ video features, under the appropriately entitled heading “Sound and Vision.”
Delving deeper into the technical challenges around the film’s audio, Criterion also includes a new 27-minute featurette, Moonage Soundscapes, featuring Morgen and audio recording mixers David Giammarco and Paul Massey. There’s some discussion around the reasoning behind the song choices in the film and how they would use them to connect moments, but attention is placed more on how they mixed the music for the Atmos environment. Some of this proved easy since they would have access to the original multitracks, allowing them to isolate vocals, instruments, and so forth quickly. However, plenty of sequences proved more difficult as they only had access to final recordings (like Live performances), and the quality would be debatable. This led to some moments of inspiration (including how they fake the acoustics of an auditorium) and some fudging and general trickery (many of those audience sounds are not from actual concerts). Even though Morgen does get into all of this in the commentary, I still found much of what is revealed here incredibly surprising.
Twenty-three minutes worth of footage from a 2022 Q&A with Morgen and Bowie’s Pianist, Mike Garson, is also included here, moderated by filmmaker Mark Romanek (Jack Black also provides an introduction). Morgen repeats some details already mentioned in the commentary but does expand on some things, even explaining why Romanek is associated with the film. At the same time, Garson shares stories about his experiences working with Bowie, including some from when Bowie was working with Brian Eno. It is an excellent, solid addition, though it’s a bit disappointing it’s not the entire session (of course, there is the possibility this is the only worthwhile material).
I would have expected additional footage or more footage from concerts (maybe even material from Ricochet), but all included along those lines is footage of Bowie performing “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” from 1974. I was also a little disappointed at the lack of academic material, outside of an essay by Jonathan Romney found in the included poster insert, examining how Morgen uses the archival material within the film to capture Bowie and his work at each point in his career. The release could have been more, but what is there is still quite good.
I would have expected a more lavish special edition, but the A/V presentation makes the release worthwhile.