Johnny Flynn plays a young David Bowie on an abortive 1971 U.S. promotional tour in this portrait of an emerging rock star in search of a persona, also featuring Marc Maron and Jena Malone.
With his chameleonic capacity for self-reinvention, his eclectic musical palette and elegant extraterrestrial freakdom, David Bowie would seem ideal subject matter for the kind of freewheeling, stylistically fragmented biopic treatment Todd Haynes gave Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. While British director Gabriel Range travels a more disappointingly conventional route to chronicle the difficult early evolution of the rock star, he does at least draw a multifaceted characterization from his lead, Johnny Flynn, which hints at the complex brilliance that would drive a celebrated five-decade career in music. Even so, Stardust is a mostly listless odyssey, its lack of excitement compounded by the absence of Bowie’s music.
“A rock star or somebody impersonating a rock star, what’s the difference?” asks Flynn’s Bowie at one point, defining a key conflict in the screenplay, co-written by Range and Christopher Bell. But that quest to nail down an artistic persona builds to a rebirth that feels anticlimactic, triumphant only in the most mechanical way because we’re shown a packed concert audience of screaming fans.
If you’re going to have an announcer welcome to the stage Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, “in their first performance on Planet Earth,” you either need a sizzling classic Bowie track or at least a strong semblance of the Bowie sound of that era. Flynn is an accomplished musician, who also plays acoustic guitar, harmonium and violin on Anne Nitikin’s trippy period-flavored score, and he aces the vocal requirements of the role. But the scrappy version of “I Wish You Would,” an unmemorable cut from Bowie’s 1973 covers album Pin Ups, merely dulls the impact of the protagonist’s butterfly-like emergence from his cocoon of insecurity.
The acoustic performance of Jacques Brel’s “My Death” that follows over the end credits works better, but by that time the transformation is botched, making Stardust a meandering buildup to nothing.
Range and Bell deserve credit for adventurousness with their central idea: exploring the agonized genesis of Bowie the superstar during a disastrous limbo year, 1971. That was after he had followed his 1969 breakout success, “Space Oddity,” with a string of flop singles, leading the music industry to wonder if he was a one-hit novelty artist. The tepid critical reception for his 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World, called for desperate measures. Pinning his hopes on the enthusiasm of one lone staffer at his American label Mercury Records, publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), Bowie embarks on a U.S. promotional tour. That’s the factual part of a film that begins with the disclaimer: What follows is (mostly) fiction.
The tour would turn out to be a fiasco; the failure of his management to obtain the necessary work visa prohibited him from actually performing. Oberman, however, is undaunted, scrambling to set up interviews on a negligible budget from the label, and booking under-the-radar gigs like a vacuum cleaner salesman convention.
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There’s considerable wry humor in this humbling reality check for a budding artist already being encouraged by his inner circle to see himself as a star. Leading the charge on that front is Bowie’s first wife Angie (Jena Malone), a swinging glamourpuss who has mapped out a path for them as rock royalty and did not sign up for obscurity. David’s hunger for fame is evident in a snippy exchange with T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan (James Cade), portrayed as a preening bore in one of the movie’s assortment of bad wigs. (Costumer Julia Patkos’ period threads and Aidan Leroux’s production design are more convincing.)
The establishing scenes are promising. David flies into Washington, D.C., where his long, lank hair, mumsy wool overcoat and mustard Mary Janes fail to impress airport immigration officers, who grill him about his sexuality and the brocade dress they pluck from his luggage. Things get only marginally better when he finally makes it through security and is greeted by Ron and his cheerful Jewish mother (Monica Parker), and they install him for the night not in a hotel but a bedroom of their suburban family home.
The dynamic that shapes much of the narrative is the predictable road-trip bridging of distance between peppy, doggedly optimistic Ron and aloof David, who drapes himself over the backseat of the publicist’s beat-up Ford station wagon and stares out the window in a petulant funk.
But the more significant interaction is the one playing out inside David’s head as he struggles with what he believes is his inevitable descent into mental instability. This is sketched out in flashbacks that reveal his family history, notably the psychotic episodes and eventual schizophrenia diagnosis that landed his half-brother and musical educator Terry (Derek Moran) in an asylum. David’s paranoia, often fueled by cocaine and mixed with a flair for pretentious self-sabotage, derails every interview opportunity Ron creates, even the holy grail of a sit-down with Rolling Stone.
The actors all do solid work. Moran is responsible for much of the film’s warmth and energy, playing a mensch whose genuine belief in the young Bowie’s genius is sorely tested. Malone brings a fizzy shot of fashionable decadence and naked ambition to her every scene. And Flynn (seen lately as Mr. Knightley in Emma) finds layers of vulnerability beneath the poseur simultaneously convinced of his own fabulousness yet needled by crippling doubts. We feel David’s unease as he frets over who he wants to be.
But as a portrait of the artist as a flailing young screw-up, particularly one that unfolds largely on the road, Stardust runs on a faulty dramatic engine. There’s too little sense in the baggy, episodic travels of David and Ron that Bowie’s deflating experience in America is contributing in any way to the formation of the star he would become. So when the film jumps after David’s return to London from a visit to Terry in the psych facility to preshow preparations for the exultant arrival of flame-haired Ziggy, it feels almost as if that process of artistic emergence has happened between scenes. Just like David’s disillusioning encounter with an unseen Andy Warhol in New York.
The real deal-breaker, however, is the failure to find a satisfying workaround for either a budget that didn’t stretch to crucial music rights or the Bowie estate’s refusal. Even when Flynn does get to perform a song associated with Bowie, like Brel’s “Amsterdam,” it’s almost a background throwaway. In lieu of a definitive Bowie biopic, I’d rather revisit another Haynes film, the glam-rock fever dream Velvet Goldmine, which took more liberties with its androgynous protagonist and yet somehow got closer to evoking the enigmatic figure who inspired him.
Production companies: Salon Pictures, Wildling Pictures, in association with Film Constellation
Cast: Johnny Flynn, Marc Maron, Jena Malone, Derek Moran, Anthony Flanagan, Julian Richings, Aaron Poole, Monica Parker, Ryan Blakely, Gord Rand, Paulino Nunes, Richard Clarkin
Director: Gabriel Range
Screenwriters: Christopher Bell, Gabriel Range
Producers: Paul Van Carter, Nick Taussig, Matt Code
Executive producers: Fabien Westerhoff, Christopher Figg, Robert Whitehouse, Saskia Thomas
Director of photography: Nicholas D. Knowland
Production designer: Aidan Leroux
Costume designer: Julia Patkos
Music: Anne Nitikin
Editor: Chris Gill
Casting: Daniel Hubbard, Jenny Lewis, Sara Kay
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Sales: Film Constellation
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