There’s a fundamental problem at the heart of Gabriel Range’s Stardust, and it’s not the one you might think. Quiet sniggering has dogged the unauthorised David-Bowie-biopic-with-no-Bowie-music from its announcement, but in the end the lack of Ziggy playing guitar makes little impact on the finished product. We are, after all, well aware who the subject of this piece is, and don’t need a substandard cover of ‘Space Oddity’ to remind us. Music is never really Stardust’s issue.
This is a film almost custom designed to annoy the people who should want to see it most. When Stardust succeeds it’s a low-key road movie about a thoughtful artist grappling with a family history of schizophrenia and suicide, and riding a roller coaster of career disappointments. Unfortunately where Stardust fails is when it’s a film about David Bowie. Which, when you’re telling a story about David Bowie, starring someone dressed as David Bowie and using the name of one of David Bowie’s most famous characters as a title, presents, to put it mildly, a bit of a worry.
Johnny Flynn is excellent as the awkward artist Bowie; the folk singer sabotaging his own success to avoid discussing the emotional truths he’s already pouring into his music. There’s more to Bowie than that though, and Flynn struggles to convince as a prestigious shagger and drug fiend, a fairly essential facet of the character. The Flynn-White-Duke this is not, and any scene involving rockstar debauchery feels oddly forced. The real Bowie had megawatt sexual charisma that could be sensed across a packed room. This David is a quiet bloke in a dress with a winsome smile.
Serious fans will spend much of the runtime tutting: details are fudged, people are misprepresented (fans of Marc Bolan are going to be particularly annoyed), events and meetings are fabricated and points are missed. Our basic conceit – that Bowie created the Ziggy Stardust character as a way to channel the heredity demons that landed his brother Terry (Derek Moran) in a psychiatric facility – feels overly simplified and bluntly weilded, though Terry’s back-story is well handled.
Stardust isn’t actually a bad film in of itself. It’s just not a very good film about David Bowie. In places, when it casts its own spell, it has real charm. There’s a likeable warmth to Flynn’s roadtrip across the states alongside PR man Ron Oberman (an on-form Marc Maron), with back-projected roads and a grainy filter used to evoke an arty 70s road movie. Cinematographer Nic Knowland brings the same gorgeous framing he gave Peter Strickland’s 2014 Duke Of Burgandy: America is widescreen and warm, while London is nicotine-stained and stark. Flynn and Maron make a compelling and enjoyable odd-couple, while Jena Malone takes a fairly minor role, Bowie’s wife Angie, pregnant and left at home to simmer, and runs with it, giving real depth to a character who could have been a shrieking, one-note harridan.
Alas, though, this is still unavoidably a film about a very real figure and as such is never going to be entirely, as it were, hunky dory. With Bowie fans ostricised and casual viewers presumably left wondering why they should care about this so-so folky in a lovely hat playing covers of Jaques Brel and the Yardbirds, it’s hard to know who is actually going to watch Stardust. It isn’t quite the god awful small affair it could have been, but fans wanting some flavour of the Starman’s early-70s journey are better off seeking one of many available documentaries (Francis Whatley’s Five Years is excellent) or Tod Hayne’s fictionalised and suitably debauched account of the glitter-flecked Ziggy years,1998’s Velvet Goldmine.