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Why Moonage Daydream Is Part of a New Wave of Archival Documentaries

Brett Morgen has built a successful documentary career profiling the likes of Jane Goodall, Kurt Cobain, The Rolling Stones, and Robert Evans with Jane (2017), Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015), Crossfire Hurricane (2012), and The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) respectively. But with his new film, Moonage Daydream, Morgen has taken one giant leap into the outer rim of the documentary genre with an experimental approach that encapsulates the flamboyance of the late David Bowie better than any actual biography ever could.

Moonage Daydream is the latest effort in a new wave of archival documentary filmmaking, which began with Peter Jackson’s technologically innovative film, They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) and docuseries, The Beatles: Get Back (2021) as well as National Geographic’s narratively groundbreaking film, LA 92 (2017). This wave of films suggests that right now and the years to come might one day be considered a new golden age of documentaries. Roll over Ken Burns and tell Michael Moore the news.


Brett Morgen Broke the Mold of Documentary Filmmaking

Moonage Daydream has more in common with a Pink Floyd laser light show than a typical documentary, something director Brett Morgen intended when he first conceived the film seven years ago. It discards the documentary convention of talking heads. It does away with dates, titles, dubbed narration, and facts and figures of every sort. It plays less like an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music and more like if an intro montage from an episode of Behind the Music was stretched out into two hours.

Morgen constructed Moonage Daydream with only the most cinematic moments from conventional documentary filmmaking. The result is a pulsating freight train of sound paired with an avant-garde avalanche of archival footage, including clips from sources as eclectic as the performer himself from Metropolis (1927) to Ricochet (1984), an obscure experimental documentary film featuring Bowie riding a labyrinth of escalators in Singapore whilst bathed in some serious neon blue light). Seeing Morgen’s film in the cinema feels like taking a David Bowie drug that lasts for two hours. It’s like downloading a Bowie YouTube algorithm directly into your brain. It’s no wonder that Morgen suffered a heart attack while beginning work on the film.

Related: Moonage Daydream Review: An Overwhelming, Inspirational Glimpse into the Fragmented Mind of David Bowie

Needless to say, Moonage Daydream broke the mold of the documentary genre. Morgen discarded the genre’s narrative limitations by allowing the archival footage to tell the story (in as much as the film has a story). He and his colorist knew they had some extensive restoration work ahead of them to allow the archival footage to tell the story. Ultimately, this led Morgen to push the technological limitations of the genre as well.

Speaking at a Q&A at TIFF, Morgen said:

“We did 650 hours of color correction. Because it’s in IMAX we had to really get in there and fight every grain. There was a part of it that was creative and artistic when we were coloring and then the noise reduction just became this obsession to try to get it into a presentable state. I remember telling the colorist, ‘The worst part of this process is we are spending 70% of our time on the worst looking shots in the finished film.’”

In spite of his long and winding road of film restoration, Morgen is the lucky benefactor of recent breakthroughs made by a fellow documentary filmmaker, Peter Jackson.

Peter Jackson Revolutionized Archival Film Restoration With CGI

Over the past few years, Peter Jackson has revolutionized film restoration technology with the magic of CGI, changing the game for archival documentary filmmaking. In 2018, Jackson brought cinemas the single greatest technological advancement in film restoration with his World War I film, They Shall Not Grow Old, using CGI to enhance historic film reels recovered from a century ago.

Unsurprisingly, some shots from the finished film still do not look amazing. So to make up for any visual shortcomings, Jackson relied on immersive sound design, much like Brett Morgen who told The Love of Cinema podcast that the sound design sessions “on Moonage were longer by a measure of four or five times” than the average film. Also, like Moonage Daydream, They Shall Not Grow Old abandoned talking heads, instead featuring wall-to-wall archival audio clips from 120 veterans sharing firsthand horrors of The Great War. Since the veterans were interviewed with high-quality microphones in the 1970s, Jackson was effectively able to let the archive speak for itself.

Related: Best Unconventional Biopics, Ranked

In 2021, Jackson doubled down on his film restoration quest with another groundbreaking work, The Beatles: Get Back (2021). The three-part Disney+ docuseries chronicled the making of the final album by the biggest rock and roll band in the world. In the process, Jackson rewrote the history of The Beatles’ infamous breakup after the original documentary filmmakers behind Let It Be (1970) left fans with a bad taste in their mouths for decades. Last year, while Brett Morgen was deep in the trenches with his colorist on Moonage Daydream, he found time to go to the movies to see the theatrically-released sister film to Jackson’s docuseries.

In a YouTube interview with Nerdist, Brett Morgen said:

“I went to see [The Beatles: Get Back – The Rooftop Concert] in IMAX. That was fantastic. I didn’t need anyone talking. I didn’t need any interviews or anything, I was just psyched to hear [that concert].”

The Rooftop Concert IMAX Experience was not the only component of The Beatles: Get Back that did not need interviews. Over the course of nearly eight hours (almost the length of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), Get Back relies almost exclusively on archival footage and audio, with a few titles of information used sparingly at the beginning and end of each three parts. While Jackson spearheaded the technology and narrative innovations of this new wave, National Geographic produced perhaps the greatest work of archival documentary filmmaking so far.

National Geographic Reinvented the Narrative Possibilities of Documentaries

National Geographic’s documentary, LA 92 (2017), directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, tells the story of how bubbling racial tensions in late 1980s Los Angeles erupted into the Rodney King Riots of 1992. But there are no titles. No talking heads. No celebrity guest narrator. No dubbed narration at all. Armed only with camcorder tapes, court footage, and news media coverage from the era, Lindsay and Martin masterfully subverted audience expectations of just how hard a documentary can punch, leaving viewers to stew in its haunting political resonance long after the end credits roll. LA 92 is 100% archival, and the resulting film is every bit as exhilarating and cinematic as the greatest fictional Hollywood thrillers.

The recent HBO documentary Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99 (2022) covered similar ground as LA 92: social disorder and mob violence in the 1990s. But Trainwreck relied heavily on conventions like talking heads when it could just as easily have told the same story strictly from archival footage like LA 92. There was an obvious surplus of camcorder video from Woodstock ‘99 concert attendees and plenty of film from the media covering the event, like MTV, whose crew was incidentally forced to evacuate the concert after being subjected to attacks from the unruly crowd.

Talking heads have long been a staple of the documentary genre. But if this new wave of archival documentaries has proven anything, it’s that they are no longer a necessary tool for telling a nonfiction story and might soon become a thing of the past. It’s an exciting time for documentaries. Be sure to catch Moonage Daydream on an IMAX screen before it’s too late.

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash