Dir: Gabriel Range. Starring: Johnny Flynn, Jena Malone, Marc Maron. 15, 109 mins
Johnny Flynn doesn’t deserve to get a bad rap for his performance as David Bowie in Stardust, Gabriel Range’s flimsy biopic of the star. The actor-musician, so magnetic in last year’s EMMA., is convincing as a tortured glam rocker – just not the one who ever sang about Major Tom’s interplanetary adventures. It’s someone else in all the floppy hats and heeled shoes, in the scarlet hair and sequins. This isn’t the artist of such brilliant, inscrutable mystique, but a vision of Bowie as a sullen child in a pre-Ziggy Stardust moment of creative instability.
It’s due partially to the fact Range never gained the approval of the singer’s estate or the rights to his discography. There’s much talk of 1969’s “Space Oddity”, but we never actually get to hear it, to the point it becomes a kind of ludicrous, musical Schrödinger's cat. It seems like a fool’s errand, but others have proven it is, indeed, possible to film a musical biopic without any of the music in question – take Jimi: All Is by My Side, which tracked the months a pre-fame Hendrix spent in London in 1967. The film used covers that Hendrix was known to perform at the time, finding veracity instead in the electric mood of the time and the musician’s own beguiling presence. It was a flawed film, but admirable in its ambitions.
Stardust takes an almost identical path, relying on other people’s songs that Bowie liked and performed, including Jacques Brel’s “My Death” and the Yardbirds’s “I Wish You Would”. That’s not a sin in itself – the film simply fails to convince on any other level. When Bowie’s path inevitability crosses with a few contemporary luminaries, such as Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, the film awkwardly skirts around them in order to avoid the burden of having to actually deliver a plausible imitation.
Range, who wrote the script with Christopher Bell (The Last Czars), is upfront about the fact Stardust is “(mostly) fiction” – as a title card brazenly declares. It picks up on a very specific episode in Bowie’s life, his 1971 tour of the US, following the commercial failure of The Man Who Sold the World. The film presents it as a case of misunderstood genius, as Bowie’s manager (Brendan J Rowland), with fourth wall-breaking obviousness, declares that “future generations will look back on it as a seminal work”.
But, for now, the only person with any faith in his artistry seems to be Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), his US publicist. Bowie lands in America, only to discover that his visa won’t allow him to perform in the country, and, with zero budget to back him, he must lodge with Ron’s mother. It’s a narrative framework that turns the entire film into a bumbling odd-couple comedy, as Bowie plays to vacuum salesmen and Christian radio stations – his internal provocateur always managing to ruin things at the last moment.
Maron is charming as an impassioned grifter, but Bowie, in any sense that his audience might recognise him, is largely absent from Stardust. What Flynn offers instead is wounded, puppy-dog looks, the adjusting of hats, and self-conscious posing – with a voice that bends towards Bowie without committing to a full-on impression. It’s not a particularly flattering portrait of the artist. Here, he’s mostly petulant about the fact he isn’t yet a rock god, with little sign of genuine commitment to his art.
It later turns out that Bowie is so reticent to talk about his work, particularly its themes of madness, due to the unprocessed trauma surrounding the institutionalisation of his half-brother (Derek Moran) as an adult, after a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He worries that he’ll be next. Range uses those fears as a catch-all explanation for the creation of Ziggy Stardust, in a way that feels presumptuous and inevitably reductive – perhaps that fits some other version of Bowie, but it’s not the one we all know and remember.