It’s been five years since David Bowie passed away and filmmaker Gabriel Range has acknowledged the anniversary with Stardust, an unauthorised biopic which commemorates the pop icon’s early struggles with stardom. The film stumbles between moods, caught between overt mythmaking and something closer to historical detail, which leaves an enjoyable but incomplete picture of the great musician’s life.
Stardust follows Bowie (Johnny Flynn) as he tries to drum up interest in his latest album, The Man Who Sold the World, by going on a month-long US publicity tour. He is accompanied by publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) who sets up a series of lowkey gigs to compliment his radio bookings and interviews. Journalists are unsure what to make of the album’s themes of madness and paranoia, and Bowie’s own uneasiness with these topics is foreshadowed by some family troubles waiting back at home.
Without permission to use Bowie’s own songs, the film can’t move into the crowd-pleasing jukebox territory of Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody – although dialogue such as “Come on David, Marc Bolan is here” suggest a more self-conscious biographic style might once have been considered – and Stardust equally avoids the more fractured approach of Dylan biopic I’m Not There which might have suited Bowie’s protean, self-constructing approach to celebrity. Instead, the film is closest in style to the similarly unauthorised Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All Is by My Side: making a decent fist of capturing the context and formative stages behind the rock iconography, but never quite blasting off to match the music’s brilliance.
There are still plenty of things to like about the film. Jena Malone gives a memorable performance as an overbearing Angie Bowie and Marc Maron is well cast as the hangdog publicity veteran chaperoning his awkward pop star across the States. The seventies set dressing and mood lighting all contribute to an enjoyable dive bar atmosphere, and the film begins to sparkle when slipping into the conventions of an odd couple road movie. However, occasional flashes of melodrama flatten that vibrancy, leaving a sense that Flynn – whilst well cast as Bowie-the-musician – can’t quite handle the story’s darker threads.
By having Bowie perform covers of real-life musical inspirations such as Jacques Brel and The Yardbirds, the film heightens its sense of a musician in search of his voice, experimenting with styles and personas. (A necessary step, it’s suggested, in the creation of Ziggy Stardust). In that respect, Stardust works hard to make a virtue of what’s available, but it’s difficult to escape the sense that a music biopic without the music will always be unconvincing. The film should scratch an itch for the Bowie obsessive hungering for a decent take on the overall mythology, but at the same time, it may leave that very audience wondering when, if at all, the South London lad will get a more comprehensive big screen outing.
Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom