One of my favorite movie theater trips in 2022 was to see Moonage Daydream, a documentary/concert movie/conceptual art film about David Bowie. A huge part of that, as you might expect, is the soundtrack – which was mastered for Dolby Atmos and IMAX, and was simply incredible when surrounded by an elite sound system.
So when I saw that Moonage Daydream was streaming on HBO Max in the US, and Netflix in the UK and Australia, I couldn't wait to fire it up and give my Dolby Atmos setup at home a real workout. I assumed we'd be looking at the latest and greatest demo for showing off the best Dolby Atmos soundbars… but it's not available in Dolby Atmos on either streaming service.
It's only in regular Dolby 5.1, which is not nothing, but is a missed opportunity the size of the Grand Canyon. Mercifully, it is possible to hear the better-quality mix at home, but only if you get the Blu-ray – and not everyone is rocking one of the best 4K Blu-ray players at a time when we're accustomed to getting Dolby Atmos from the best streaming services.
(Yes, fellow audio nerds, I know the Blu-ray version would be extra-superior anyway because it'd be the full-fat uncompressed Dolby Atmos audio, unlike on streaming – but I'd be happy with the streamed version!)
5.1 versus total 3D sound
The reason Moonage Daydream is such an exciting Dolby Atmos showpiece is a combination of how the movie is constructed, and how Atmos works. The film is essentially a series of live performances from across Bowie's career (connected by contemporary interviews from Bowie), remastered to give you the feeling of being right there in the venue, surrounded by other fans, washed over with music pumping from the speakers that's not quite what you remember from the original versions.
One of the greatest conceits of Moonage Daydream is that it has basically no studio recordings – it's all live performances. So when you're hearing The Jean Genie, Bowie riffs on it by mixing it with The Beatles' Love Me Do.
Why is Dolby Atmos better for all this when Dolby 5.1 does still surround you? It's about the channels. 5.1 delivers exactly the number of channels it sounds like: five around you (three at the front, two behind), and one for bass. Sounds are engineered to come from those specific angles, and you need the right number of speakers in the right positions.
Dolby Atmos is freed from a specific set of speaker angles. Sound is engineered in a 3D environment, with different 'objects' for each source of sound – so a guitar can be placed in a specific position in space, the singer somewhere else, a crowd all around you… it can feel so much more like you're truly hearing a group of musicians play.
And it doesn't matter how many speakers you have, or exactly where they're positioned. That's why some of the best soundbars have wildly different numbers of channels, ranging from 3.1.2 in the Sonos Beam 2nd Gen up to 11.4.6 in the faintly ridiculous Nakamichi Dragon. They can all interpret the same 3D soundscape, and steer sounds to the right location based on their own speaker setup – and obviously 11 channels around you is going to result in much more specific and convincing positioning of the individual instruments.
Even you only have a Dolby Atmos setup with five channels surround you, Atmos mixes still sound better than traditional 5.1 – it's a higher-quality format, and it's simply easier for individual elements to sound separate from each other.
Good Atmos systems will take a Dolby 5.1 signal and attempt to upscale it to fill their many speakers better, but it's not the same as if we'd just been given the fantastic mood-building Moonage Daydream soundtrack in Atmos in the first place.
(By the way, the soundtrack is on Apple Music and Tidal, both of which support Dolby Atmos music… and it's not in Atmos on these streaming platforms, either.)
Watch Moonage Daydream anyway, it's great
Now that I'm done ranting, it's time to say that it's still worth watching Moonage Daydream in Dolby 5.1 regardless. It'll give your sound system a nice workout either way, and I think it's a fantastic spin on the concert film and everyone will enjoy, whether you're invested in Bowie fan or not.
I say keeping saying it's a concert film rather than a documentary, because if you go in expecting a documentary about David Bowie the real person, you will find it quite unsatisfying. It's very much about David Bowie, but it's about Bowie the myth, as created by Bowie himself.
Pretty much the only person who gets to speak about Bowie is Bowie, with minimal additions from others around him. There are not just short quote clips, but also lengthier interviews segments where he talks about why he created his different characters, how and why he expressed himself through fashion and make up, and the music, of course. But it's all from inside the bubble – and a beautiful bubble it is too, but it has an incentive not to burst itself within the intentionally ethereal experience of the movie.
There's no discussion of substance abuse, or difficult relationships – other than occasionally with society's expectations. This about as unobjective as a documentary can be, but it's utterly enthralling as journey through time with an incredibly creative musician and performer. As I mentioned, the music comes from live performances, spread out over time, so you get to follow not only the change in Bowie's music, but also his evolving opinion on himself in the connecting tissue between the performances.
And then also sometimes you just get thrown into some abstract music visualizations while moody tones play and Bowie says something inspiring. And it's great, because by that point, you're deep into the right mindset.
I would rate Moonage Daydream as among the best Netflix movies or best HBO Max movies (depending on your location). It won't be for everyone, but if you've gone to the trouble of investing in a great audio system, give it a whirl. Just try not to think about how it should've been even better.