Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 49 minutes, Director – Gabriel Range
David Bowie (Johnny Flynn) embarks on a US tour in the hope of promoting the seemingly unsellable The Man Who Sold The World.
“What follows is (mostly) fiction” runs the opening title-card for Ziggy Stardust origin story Stardust. Unlike 2019’s Rocketman which took musical numbers in its stride to create fantasy sequences within its true life story or Bohemian Rhapsody which was filled with the music of Queen, there’s very little music within this snapshot of David Bowie’s life. This is down to the fact that Bowie’s estate and family didn’t give permission for the film to use the late artist’s music. Instead we get various covers that he may have sung at some of his gigs at the time.
Over the course of the film we see Bowie (Johnny Flynn) travelling across America with the one man who believes he has something, record promoter Rob Oberman (Marc Maron). The two make their away across the States in his messy, green-tinged family car, the amount of clutter in there makes it seem as if he lives on the vehicle – although initially the pair stay at his Mum’s house for the first few nights. The hierarchy between singer and representative is made clear from the start as Bowie makes his home across the back seat while Rob acts as his personal driver – who also happens to arrange his gigs.
There’s little interest in the act from anyone. Bowie performs to quiet vacuum cleaner conventions or small, cramped bars with no response to his covers. Interviewer’s sneer and poke fun at his behaviour and dresses – his bursts into mime don’t always help – they claim “I know a boring British import when I see one”. During the same interview there are various references to a mask that Bowie uses, as he lies down in a way that seems clearly set up to look like the UK album cover of The Man Who Sold The World – an album which seems impossible to promote. Bowie’s behaviour and habits don’t always help, when talking to one writer a number of his lines sound like something that could have been said by Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap.
His pregnant wife (Jena Malone) at home calls wishing that her husband was at home for support instead of parading round America. Meanwhile, flashbacks of his brother Terry (Derek Moran) make him worry that he too may be experiencing schizophrenia. However, such elements are rarely touched upon, only brought in for ineffective moments of personal drama and explanation as to the birth of Ziggy Stardust.
As each gig and conversation between the unlikely touring duo goes by the film feels more and more like a by-the-numbers road trip instead of a proper biopic. The issue isn’t that Bowie’s music isn’t present – the score certainly has hints of the likes of Space Oddity, one of the most frequently mentioned songs in the film, next to The Laughing Gnome, although stopping before anything properly distinguishable is heard, likely to avoid legal issues. It’s more that the film feels very un-Bowie. You could replace the name of the central character with anyone and it would likely have the same impact and feeling of a generic road-trip film. Very conventional and decreasing in personality and entertainment value as it goes along. This isn’t down to Flynn’s performance, he gives a good turn, and there’s no denying that he can sing, it’s more down to the scripting and narrative of the film. What starts off as something decent enough and bearable soon becomes something bland and void of imagination – which Bowie was, of course, far from.
In fact, the film almost seems as if it goes out of its way to not reference the iconic mind and music of the central figure – although at times it almost feels as if Rob is the focus of the film. A radio interview goes wrong and so the presenter decides to play another artist instead of the one right in-front of him. Instead of a moment of drama or an insertion of humour such moments simply take away from the piece and make it feel even more generic. The more it occurs the more tiresome the trip becomes. By the time you get to the big concert finale the moment lacks energy and, more importantly, Bowie.
Stardust’s biggest issue isn’t the fact that it lacks the music of its subject matter, it’s the fact that it feels like it’s not about David Bowie at all. This is a deeply generic, and eventually bland, road trip that begins to focus on everything around the central figure, who could go by any name.