Directed by Gabriel Range.
Starring Johnny Flynn, Jena Malone, Marc Maron, Anthony Flanagan, Lara Heller, Roanna Cochrane, Jorja Cadence, Brendan J. Rowland, and Olivia Carruthers.
David Bowie, two years on from his breakthrough record, embarks on his first tour of the US in 1971 – a trip that helped inspire the creation of his iconic alter ego, Ziggy Stardust.
After Bohemian Rhapsody, the Oscar-winning Queen-athon that proved once again the disparity that exists between commercial success and critical reaction, one might be forgiven for presuming the appetite for big name, elaborate wig-and-veneers rock’n’roll biopics had been all but satisfied. Perhaps the only subject to tempt us back for another helping, however, would be someone like David Bowie, an artist with a seemingly chameleonic capacity for reinvention whose songs and stagecraft have long been celebrated for their vision, innovation and influence.
Here, it’s Beast actor Johnny Flynn donning the fake hair and teeth, but from its first few frames, Stardust, the work of writer-director Gabriel Range, vows to do things a little differently. “What follows is (mostly) fiction” promises the film’s prologue, before jumping head-on into a psychedelic opening sequence that sees Bowie trapped in a spacesuit and struggling to communicate with the world around him.
As an entry point into the narrative—focusing on the years of musical limbo following the breakout success of Space Oddity—it is fitting. As a visual metaphor for a period when a younger Bowie was experimenting with identity and embracing his androgynous appearance, it’s striking.
Equally daring is Range and co-writer Christopher Bell’s decision to home in on a fairly unremarkable period in Bowie’s professional life: namely, his disastrous first tour of the US in 1971 which saw him unable to perform due to his management failing to obtain the required work visa. In the context of the film’s production obstacles—a limited budget compounded by a failure to license any actual Bowie tracks—it’s a shrewd choice, but one that, from the get go, threatens to leave audiences somewhat underwhelmed.
And, sure enough, Stardust never quite delivers on the intrigue of its initial pledge, nor does it maintain the same astute resourcefulness exhibited by its narrative focus. Had Range and Bell opted to play things a little less safe, however, the film’s biggest hindrance could well have become its finest asset: an opportunity to propel the story beyond a paint-by-numbers biopic that so often feels like a self-congratulatory exercise in greatest hits box-checking. Sadly, even without the songs of its subject, Stardust, save for a handful of sparkling moments, largely refrains from diverging too much from the conventional formula.
Flynn, to his credit, does his best with what ultimately manifests as a familiar tale about a down-on-his-luck musician grappling with existential dilemmas around identity. And perhaps herein lies the film’s biggest disappointment: that it rarely feels like a Bowie film. In fact, Stardust works more successfully as a buddy road movie, albeit a fairly generic one, where past revelations about its protagonist’s family are poignantly drip-fed to us in tandem with his journey to becoming someone new.
Elsewhere, there are nice turns from comedian Marc Maron, playing optimistic publicist Ron Oberman, as well as from Jenna Malone as Angie, Bowie’s first wife, in a criminally fleeting role. But, by and large, Stardust never quite shakes the feeling of something unrefined; something that remains unfinished. The makings of something more intriguing are certainly there, hidden beneath the timidness, but Stardust doesn’t seem bold enough to go searching for them.
“Posterity,” one character states early on, “It means future generations are going to look back on it as a piece of seminal work”. On this showing, that sentiment seems unlikely to extend to the movie itself.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.