‘Stardust’ review: David Bowie biopic delves deep into the genesis of an icon

Johnny Flynn plays Starman in a revelatory road trip movie that lacks its subject's music

Bowie legend would like us to believe that Ziggy Stardust beamed to earth fully-formed from some pan-sexual kabuki mothership full of scandalously revealing leggings. Writer-director Gabriel Range, however, proffers a very different Ziggy origin story. Here, rock culture’s defining extra-terrestrial was born out of fear, insecurity, failure and encroaching madness on a disastrous US tour in 1971. A trip, he suggests, when David Bowie realised that being himself might not be enough.

Where we imagine a character like Ziggy could only have been invented in a burst of supreme confidence, Johnny Flynn – singer and burgeoning screen star in Emma, Les Miserables and Lovesick – presents a lost, insecure and fidgety Bowie of ’71, desperate to be recognised but beaten down by numerous chart failures and mocked for his failings by one of the most bricklayerish screen Marc Bolan’s you’ll ever see. Arriving in America without the visa for his planned solo tour, he hooks up with the only fan of ‘The Man Who Sold To The World’ at his record label, publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), and embarks upon a whirlwind coast-to-coast tour of under-the-radar gigs at sales conferences and open mic nights, shunned by Andy Warhol, wholesome radio DJs and arrogant scumbag music journalists along the way.

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The elephant in the screening room is the lack of actual Bowie songs. Bowie’s son Duncan Jones has made it clear that his estate hasn’t endorsed the film and there has clearly been no clearance granted for any of his Ziggy-era classics. Instead, performance scenes consist of Flynn playing some of the lesser-known covers that Bowie performed around this time – The Yardbirds’ ‘I Wish You Would’ and Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel’s ‘My Death’ – which robs the film of the sense that Bowie’s glowering talent was being criminally ignored. ‘Hunky Dory’, amongst the greatest albums ever made, is brushed over without a mention and there’s no triumphant finale of ‘Starman’ or ‘Suffragette City’ to send Stardust out on a bang.

The film works far better, then, as a revelatory road-trip movie rather than a biopic. The growing animosity and friendship between Bowie and Oberman is beautifully built, with Maron bristling with dedicated fandom stretched to breaking point and Flynn delivering a believably troubled Bowie, plagued by flashbacks about his schizophrenic brother Terry and his fears he may be succumbing to a genetic code of mental illness. Jena Malone (of Donnie Darko, The Hunger Games and The Neon Demon fame) steals every scene she’s given as a fittingly fiery Angie Bowie and there’s an (albeit fictionalised) illumination to be had from Stardust, for both casual fan and hardcore Bowiephiliac.

Though underplayed – the spark of inspiration for Ziggy is never really pinpointed – there’s a moment which artfully captures an awakening at the core of Bowie as chameleonic alien godhead. After having spent an evening idol worshipping The Velvet Underground’s new singer thinking he was Lou Reed all along, Bowie opines to Oberman: “a rock star or somebody impersonating a rock star, what’s the difference?” From that point on, it’s Ziggy playing guitar.

Details

  • Director: Gabriel Range
  • Starring: Johnny Flynn, Marc Maron, Jena Malone
  • Release date: TBC
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