David Bowie is one of the most enigmatically inspirational music stars of the 20th Century. To make a biopic covering his early career seems a daunting prospect – to do it without the Bowie estate’s consent and, thusly, none of his iconic music seems an impossible one. STARDUST isn’t entirely without merit, but it lacks the cryptic charisma of its subject; something that might distract from a disjointed and inconsequential narrative.
The film is set in the aftermath of the 1970 release of The Man Who Sold the World. There is still the worry that Bowie (Johnny Flynn) is a one-hit-wonder after Space Oddity and the disturbing and obscure lyrics of the new music – particularly All the Madmen – are thought too dark for potential listeners, especially those in the USA. To raise his profile ahead of the US release, Bowie dispatches himself to America, where Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) is his only real cheerleader at the US label. Further complicating matters is a visa situation which prevents Bowie from actually performing for audiences. Throughout, as Bowie struggles to present himself to conservative US tastes, we see flashbacks of his relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry and the influence it may have had on his music.
The lack of Bowie’s music for STARDUST is a significant hurdle, although not one that cannot be overcome. Johnny Flynn’s performance is engaging, especially given the character is a pre-deification Bowie. His legendary status is not assured, reflected in Bowie’s mannerisms and the reaction of those around him. However, Flynn’s performance isn’t strong enough to carry the rather more limp production around it.
For a film about a figure so energising, the story feels dull and lifeless – dedicated to a perfunctory road trip which proves inconsequential in the narrative. The film wants to present itself as a genesis story of the Ziggy Stardust persona, an identity which finally launched Bowie. A breakout which propelled both The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and its predecessor Hunky Dory to the upper echelons of the album charts. However, the road trip itself does little illuminate Bowie’s character, and the insight we do (allegedly) gain is via flashback, only tenuously linked to the film’s present. Further, it is only in the film’s closing movements, after the road trip, that the script establishes an explicit link to Bowie’s most famous musical persona.
The driving force behind the misunderstood album is interpreted here as Bowie’s relationship with his schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns. The presentation of this is in the simplest terms (even if a post-concert flashback seems to come from a story Bowie himself told NME after the release of Black Tie White Noise in 1993). Terry will frequently show up and act disconcertingly, in a non-specific way, before the film swiftly moves back to the road trip. It would be tough to trace the thematic through-lines in any case, but the shallow and sparing portrayal scarcely draws them in the first place. Even iconic moments the film could have leant upon, such as Bowie’s visit to Andy Warhol’s Factory (and the subsequent filming of him miming) are glossed over. Even the presence of Marc Bolan is that of a semi-ludicrous glam rock spectre.
Had the music been available to STARDUST, the accomplished production design could perhaps salvage something from the script alongside it. If the final scenes triumphantly reverberated with the opening riff of Ziggy Stardust, or somberly reflected on the lyrics of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, there would at least be a cathartic metamorphosis upon which to end. As it is, however, the story provides little insight into Bowie’s psyche, style, or lyrics.
A musician himself, Johnny Flynn’s quote about a track he wrote for the production is sadly emblematic of the whole film: “I don’t think it’s crap, but I knew it didn’t have to be a brilliant song”. Indeed, STARDUST isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t seem to strive for much more than that.