Johnny Flynn fails to capture the essence of David Bowie in a truly unimaginative and tedious film that has no reason to exist
The iconic songs “The Man Who Sold the World” and “Space Oddity” both existed by 1971, the year in which Gabriel Range's David Bowie biopic Stardust takes place, yet you won't hear a note of them in this tedious film about a tedious period in Bowie’s life, made without the rights to his music – or the blessing of his estate. It's positioned as an origin story for his Ziggy Stardust character, but gives us zero insight into how he actually came up with that famous alter ego (“He likes space” is about the depth of its musings).
The film's get-around to having none of the tunes is that it's about the time Bowie arrived in America and due to an issue with his work visa was unable to perform his material. “All you can do is talk,” explains Ron Oberman, the 27-year-old Mercury Records publicist played here by the 57-year-old Marc Maron. It’s that sort of film – historical wobbly and careless with details; a point brazenly reaffirmed by a title card that is quick to tell us that what we're seeing is mostly made up.
The singer-turned-actor Johnny Flynn, miscast in the leading role, doesn't resemble Bowie physically, nor does he try to act like him or imitate his singular voice. It's a sincere performance, but one that's entirely without impact; Flynn plays Bowie as dithering, inconsistent, a bit of a shit. And you feel sorry for Maron, who, in a better film, might have nailed a role like this, but here seems neutered by the lethargy, as though realising the disastrous nature of the film he's agreed to just a couple of days into shooting.
The energy is bizarrely low and everyone looks bored, while it's hard to recall a film that makes the 70s look so dull and uninspired. All the time, the bad wigs and questionable impressions keep coming (Marc Bolan turns up in a horrific cameo at the start), as Bowie and Oberman cross state lines in generic odd couple mode, playing gigs in cheap motels and empty bars – with other people's songs.
A jarring flashback structure continually brings what little narrative drive there is to a halt, forever spinning the story on uninteresting tangents involving David’s brother Terry, who we learn has been committed to a mental asylum. David fears the same will happen to him, but despite Stardust's attempts to make this the emotional centre of its story, it never feels like a legit concern. There’s no insight into Bowie’s musical talent, either – no attempt to grapple with his process as an artist. We’re expected to just accept he’s a genius without the film doing any work to convince us.
“Who is David? What does he stand for?” The leaden script is packed with obvious, unsubtle lines made in this vein. Consider them a hangover from dozens of bad biopics where characters say things with fourth wall-breaking irony, riffing on our knowledge in the present. The rest is merely cooker cutter: Bowie, starry eyed, staring at the New York City skyline from the back seat of a car; a hodgepodge of scenes from other films, moments and lines transposed from a history of middling biopics. How much longer must we suffer the same, recycled narratives, unimaginably repackaged and regurgitated? At least once more, Stardust tells us.
You can't help but wonder what anyone saw in this project. It can’t have been a love for David Bowie – there is no trace of the man in this script, which lies at the other end of a cosmic wormhole, as far away from his influence as you can possibly imagine. Bohemian Rhapsody – a film whose box office success no doubt inspired this one – was badly written, poorly made, and questionably acted. But at least it had the songs.
To fabricate events in order to tell a story that didn’t happen, about a time that isn't particularly interesting, in a film that lacks the music and even a hint of a credible impression… could there be anything less David Bowie than that? To quote the great man himself: it's a godawful small affair.
Stardust is now available to rent on various streaming services.Where to watch