There’s an awful lot of pressure when you’re the first out of the gate to make a movie about an artist with a massive fanbase and who is omnipresent in pop culture. Director Gabriel Range will surely take a lot of flack for daring to take on the mantle with Stardust, which covers Brit David Bowie’s first foray to America with his music.
Twenty-four-year Bowie is played by 36-year-old Johnny Flynn, an English musician (The Sussex Wit) and actor (Emma), who almost-but-not-quite captures the essence of his subject. This is “David before Bowie,” as the press notes say (and the press notes also refer to Aladdin Sane as “Aladdin Zane” …yikes), so here we see a musician on the precipice of fame in 1971, touring an America who’s never heard of him and really doesn’t seem to want to. Without a work visa or financial backing from his label, Bowie is reduced to sitting in the back of a station wagon as he wends his way across the country, stopping to play third-rate gigs (the scene set at a vacuum-cleaner salesman’s convention is funny).
Stardust is an unauthorized biopic, decried by Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, and features none of the music we know and love. That sort of thing doesn’t bode well, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is going to be bad. I mean, music rights are crazy-expensive and downright prohibitive for independent producers, so improvisation is understandable. The filmmakers chose to go with some low-profile covers and period-correct soundalikes. This is nothing to be ashamed of—recent biopics about Jeff Buckley and Jimi Hendrix were in the same vein, and they made it work. Unfortunately, Stardust’s songs are pretty lackluster and Flynn does only a passable mimic of Bowie’s dulcet tones.
At the start of Stardust, we meet Bowie at home in the U.K. Only one of his songs, Space Oddity, has received any airplay, and the singer-songwriter already been written off as a one-hit-wonder. At this point, he’s still a long-haired hippie type and he raises eyebrows by wearing designer dresses on stage. Bowie has not yet decided who he should be (and he never did—Bowie practically invented reinvention), but what he is, is a married, soon-to-be father, so he’d better decide quick. He can’t just float around on a cloud of sitar music anymore. He decides that his future lies across the pond, so off he goes.
Bowie’s shiny American Dream is instantly tarnished when he’s hassled by Customs at the airport and met outside by his rather unimpressive-looking newly-appointed publicist from Mercury Records. Ron Oberman (Marc Maron, G.L.O.W.) is driving a beat-up Ford Ranch Wagon and informs him that there’s no budget for a hotel, so Bowie will be sleeping in a spare room at Oberman’s parents’ house. Oberman, who was actually 28 in real life, is really the only person who believes in Bowie. As a character, he’s there to spout pep talks and give the audience information on the burgeoning glam music scene of the early 1970s.
The setup is inherently interesting. Even though he’s supposed to be touring the States, our hero can’t give paid concerts, nor perform on television or radio, and he is tethered by his pregnant wife and his institutionalized elder brother. Angie Bowie (Jena Malone, The Hunger Games franchise) is not, by any account, warm and fuzzy, but here she comes off as a one-dimensional, ball-busting harpy. Bowie’s schizophrenic sibling, Terry (Derek Moran, Murdock Mysteries), fares somewhat better. David and Terry are very close, and it’s Terry who taught David about music before suffering the psychotic break that forced him to be institutionalized. In the film, the point is driven home hard that Bowie is convinced he’s next in for this inheritable malady.
Flynn does his best here, but he’s got a thankless job. While it’s not always important to look a lot like the person you’re playing, it helps. Since he’s portraying a different side to Bowie that’s not as well-known by casual fans and YouTube rabbit-hole divers, it’s harder to get a grasp on the character. Bowie possessed a languid insolence and rapier wit, even early on, but here he is tone-deaf and bumbling. In the movie, we see him in a replica of his The Man Who Sold the World frock (the original was created by en-vogue fashion designer Michael Fish) so many times, it makes one wonder if he forgot to pack for the tour.
What’s more, Range’s bland, paint-by-numbers style will leave many viewers cold. If you can’t get the music, then do something really gorgeous and stylized with the score, cinematography, sets, and costumes. I was stunned to learn that Nicholas D. Knowland shot Stardust—I don’t know what happened, but if you’ve seen his work on Berberian Sound Studio or The Duke of Burgundy, you’ll be just as a let-down. Rather than dazzling, the look of Stardust is dreary, hidden in shadow, and tinged with sepia.
The screenplay, which Range cowrote with newbie Christopher Bell (The Last Czars), resorts to exposition and standard-issue flashbacks mixed with phone calls between David and Angie. To me, it felt lazy. If you have very little to work with (low budget, no music rights), then get creative! In my opinion, a fantasy or magical-realism version of Bowie’s story would have made a lot more sense and would have been a lot more fun.
But what if we take the whole Bowie thing out of the equation? How is Stardust as just a movie about a fledgling musician? It’s prosaic but reasonably entertaining. If you love rock music history and enjoy stories about finding one’s muse, Stardust is worth a whirl.