Is there another genre as difficult to master as the music biopic? Not only is it incredibly hard to summarise and compress an artist’s life into two mere hours, it's also quite a task highlighting cultural impact they have made. Many have tried - some have failed gloriously - and others have come out on the other side victorious. Stardust, Gabriel Range’s film about David Bowie's pre-Ziggy Stardust mega-fame falls somewhere in the middle. Not bold enough to do Bowie justice, but also with a surprisingly tender heart beating at its core.
The film mostly tracks Bowie’s 1971 trip to the States. Bowie arrives, eager and ready for success, but a little too camp for the likes of the bullish Americans. Turns out that Bowie lacks the correct visa which does not allow him to perform, at least in the sense he was expecting to. Stardust will perhaps go down in history as a film about David Bowie with zero songs by the master himself.
Yet, it kind of works. Not completely, it is clearly a rights issue – Bowie’s family have been very outspoken that they have nothing to do with this film nor do they really approve - but it’s also a fascinating portrayal of someone many of us only ever knew as a global superstar. This is Bowie, before Bowie.
“What follows is (mostly) fiction” reads on the screen before Stardust cuts to Bowie in a spacesuit, a trippy and energetic opening sequence the rest of the film can never match somehow. While it shows that Range and co-writer Christopher Bell are aware that they have to let us know this is a fictionalised account of Bowie’s creation of Ziggy Stardust, it also feels a little redundant and condescending. It begs us to ask the question of whether Stardust or not is essential viewing and who is it meant for?
Unfortunately, it’s not the lack of Bowie songs that renders Stardust a lacklustre effort in bringing the icon on screen, but the fact that it just never captures Bowie’s eccentric, wild and utterly incomparable nature convincingly. This is not down to Johnny Flynn, who took on the near-impossible task of bringing Bowie to life. Flynn, who has been crafting a fascinating career playing off-beat characters with an inherent awkwardness and charm, feels like a bold choice for the role of Bowie, but while he is let down by the filmmaking decisions, he finds the emotional core and turns in an at-times electrifying performance.
Jena Malone, playing Bowie’s first wife Angie, feels rather miscast and most definitely underused. It’s a performance that feels very out of place, but mostly because it’s too small for the talents of someone as an explosive performer as Malone. Much of the film plays out like a road movie with Marc Maron’s publicist Ron Oberman driving Bowie around from venue to venue. Unfortunately, Flynn and Maron share absolutely no chemistry and never establish an interesting enough dynamic.
Stardust is also a strangely boring and bland for a film about one of the most interesting human beings to have graced our planet. While there are a handful of breath-taking moments, Range never manages to convincingly draw a comparison of how this drab, uninteresting road trip allegedly inspired the character of Ziggy. While the inclusion of Bowie’s brother Terry, who suffered from schizophrenia and which affected Bowie a great deal, feels appropriate and Flynn truly sells Bowie’s anxieties about what he saw as potentially inherited psychosis, the film just doesn’t come together despite several of the key pieces being present.
Stardust is available in select theatres, digital and cable VOD in the US from November 25, and is currently scheduled to play in cinemas and on digital in the UK from January 15.