It’s five years since David Bowie passed away, leaving behind fifty-year legacy of creativity and inspiration. A movie biopic has been the dream of many a filmmaker since before Bowie died, with Danny Boyle recently attempting to make a musical. Bowie refused to allow the director to use the rights to his songs, scuppering the project. Bowie’s estate has likewise refused permission for this week’s release, Stardust, but unlike Boyle, director Gabriel Range has persevered.
The film is loosely based on an ill-fated 1971 American tour to promote The Man Who Sold The World, which would see the beginnings of his Ziggy Stardust persona. Johnny Flynn stars as Bowie, the enigmatic artist yet to reach his full potential and intent on stardom (“I need to be known” he pleads at one point).
Sceptical of his potential in The US after his latest release flounders, a tour is hastily put together by publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) the only employee at the record company who believes in his music. Unable to perform, Oberman must sell Bowie as a character, facing a lot of obstacles along the way.
Let’s start with the biggest issue of the film: the lack of any of David Bowie’s music (his son Duncan Jones has publicly criticised the film). The production finds a loophole for this in the first few minutes – a work visa issue that prevents Bowie from being able to perform. When Flynn does sing, it’s covers of other people’s songs. It’s far from the first musician biopic to do this – 2017’s Morrissey origin story England Is Mine and Beatles drama Backbeat (1994) both made it to our screens without any of the artists’ back catalogues.
However, those films had the luxury of focusing on their subject pre-fame. This finds Bowie after the success of A Space Oddity, in a story that seeks to encapsulate why he was so ground-breaking. It’s hard to do that without the music, particularly when that’s all anyone seems to talk about. “Who is David Bowie?” a beleaguered music executive asks Flynn at one point, “do you know?”. The same question could well be asked of the filmmakers, as they grope around trying to describe art that they can’t show you.
The bumpy road trip is pleasant enough, thanks largely to the grumpy brilliance of Maron as Oberman. As radio hosts and musical contemporaries raise their eyebrows at this strange new British import, Maron is the voice of every fan that was to come as he never wavers on his companion’s potential. He is the sole bright light in a clunky plot, that delights in the wink-nudge irony of people not ‘getting’ Bowie, while also forcing in some flashback sequences to explain what holds him back from truly realising his creativity.
In the absence of the music, the film has to focus on the man. Flynn is an actor with real presence, as seen in last year’s Emma and opposite Jessie Buckley in 2017’s Beast. As Bowie, however, his performance here always feels like an impression. There’s none of the charisma of the real person, as he stares from under a large hat shyly grinning like Princess Diana. He’s practically silent compared to Maron, and other characters such as Jena Malone’s abrasive turn as his first wife Angie.
Stardust is a nice idea, hampered by circumstance and execution. Even if we could hear the classics, it wouldn’t smooth over flaws in the script and the presentation of what Bowie was to become. There will no doubt be many films made about David Bowie and the impact he had on the world. They do well to avoid Stardust’s mistakes.
Stardust is available On Demand from Friday.