Reviewed by: Max Crawford

"This could have been a fine film if it had been a different story about Bowie or this story about someone else."

I'm surprised that it's taken five years since David Bowie's passing for someone to attempt the biopic treatment. Stardust wisely shuns the standard birth-career highlights-death formula, instead choosing to focus on a specific incident in Bowie's life: an ill-fated tour of the United States in early 1971, when he was mostly known as a one-hit wonder off the back of Space Oddity. "What follows is (mostly) fiction," we are warned, which seems reasonable for a story of a man who indulged in no small degree of self-mythologising.

It would be unfair to criticise any normal human being for not looking or sounding like David Bowie, but I'm going to do it anyway because Johnny Flynn resembles Geoffrey Rush doing an Eddie Izzard impersonation. It's made all the more jarring by the extraordinary costuming work in the film, with early scenes including a near-perfect replica of the Michael Fish "man's dress" Bowie wore on the cover of the UK release of The Man Who Sold The World. As he drifts through Dulles airport in his frock coat and bippity boppity hat, Flynn does his best to exude a certain aura of Bowie-ness, and it's really not his fault that he's a normal Earth human with a normal Earth human allocation of cheekbones.

Copy picture

Some context: Bowie released The Man Who Sold the World in 1971, to muted acclaim. His record label sent him on a promotional tour of the US, but without the proper work visa he was forbidden to perform any actual gigs or even play his music on the radio. He ended up on a sort of extended press junket with Mercury Records bod Ron Oberman, touring the country and soaking up American culture before returning home buzzing with ideas for two of the greatest works of art of the 20th or any other century: Hunky Dory and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars.

The story Stardust wants to tell is at odds with the reality of the tour. It's not really a story about David Bowie, more of an exploration of fear of mental illness in which Bowie is used as a cipher. It's true that Bowie was deeply troubled by his family's history of schizophrenia, and that themes of madness and institutionalisation run heavily through The Man Who Sold The World, but he was never shy about it. The film portrays a man in denial about his fears, unwilling to discuss the meaning behind his music, particularly his brother's incarceration in an asylum. Here's David Bowie explaining All The Madmen for John Swenson of Zygote Magazine in 1971:-

"The guy in that story has been placed in a mental institution and there are a number of people in that institution being released each week that are his friends. Now they’ve said that he can leave as well. But he wants to stay there, ’cause he gets a lot more enjoyment out of staying there with the people he considers sane. He doesn’t want to go through the psychic compromises imposed on him by the outer world. [Pauses.] Ah, it’s my brother. ’Cause that’s where he’s at."

It may seem like nit-picking, but to so utterly mischaracterise the subject of a biopic in this way is an unforgivable flaw. It's made all the more frustrating by the details that are absolutely bang on the nose: the costumes obviously recreated with loving care, the mime sequence in Andy Warhol's Factory neatly matched to the footage shot at the time. This could have been a fine film if it had been a different story about Bowie or this story about someone else. Instead we have to sit through Mick Ronson and Woody Woodmansey - alumni of Bowie's lycra-jumpsuit-clad glam-rock precursors The Hype - throwing a hissy fit at being asked to wear lycra jumpsuits for their Spiders From Mars stage personas. There are some nice touches in the direction, and Jena Malone's turn as Angie Bowie is pitch perfect, but it's not enough to save a project this deeply flawed in its conception.

Instead of portraying an artist at the start of an incredible journey, overflowing with creative potential, Stardust shows us a confused and slightly dazed caricature of a man bumbling around the United States, cursing briefly at a 'Puppet Show and David Bowie' sign, having a meaningful conversation with his handler at a literal, actual crossroads, and then returning home to a cringe-inducing sequence that tries to pin down Bowie's desire to perform in character as a way of sidestepping impending psychosis.

We then jump to the first night of the Ziggy Tour, neatly eliding such inconsequential landmarks as the birth of Bowie's son and the release of Hunky Dory, the best album there is out of all the albums that there are. At this point, why are you even bothering to make a Bowie biopic? Did I mention there aren't any Bowie songs on the soundtrack? It's a well-put-together soundtrack, but the filmmakers failed to secure the rights to any of Bowie's songs and have instead resorted to the shrug-you-know-how-it-is-here's-a-cover-version approach. Several times throughout the film we come across ignorant journalists dismissive of Bowie's prowess, while we're invited to mock their 1971 perspective. It's a device that would work a lot better if any of Bowie's musical genius were evident anywhere in the film.

We close on a riff on Bowie's cover of Jacques Brel's My Death, a song I haven't been able to listen to for, oh, five years now. I'm listening to it now. You'll have to excuse me. I have something in my eye.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2020
Share this with others on...
Stardust packshot
In 1971, David Bowie embarked on a transformative road trip through America with struggling publicist Rob Oberman. This film tells the story of the star's reinvention.
Amazon link

Director: Gabriel Range

Writer: Christopher Bell, Gabriel Range

Starring: Johnny Flynn, Jena Malone, Marc Maron, Lara Heller, Aaron Poole, Anthony Flanagan, Allie Dunbar, Roanna Cochrane, Annie Briggs, Jorja Cadence, Myles Dobson, Ryan Blakely, Jeremy Legat, Derek Moran, Drew Moss

Year: 2020

Runtime: 109 minutes

Country: UK


Tribeca 2020

Search database: