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'Stardust': The Bowie Biopic Road Movie No One Needs

Bowie and Oberman in the lobby of hotel
Johnny Flynn as David Bowie and Marc Maron as Ron Oberman in Gabriel Range's STARDUST. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Hollywood loves making biopics about famous musicians, and such movies often become hits because they allow the public a chance to gain insight into admirable people and the stories behind beloved songs. Recent examples, such as Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, had vastly different styles but were both well-received, while previous titles, such as Walk the Line, Love & Mercy, and The Coal Miner's Daughter have stood the test of time and still adorn many film lovers' shelves. Each includes a robust catalog of the artist's music and leaves viewers feeling they received a glimpse into greatness. Gabriel Range's Stardust, the latest biopic movie about a musician -- in this case, David Bowie -- fails to impress because it checks neither box and will leave viewers feeling they spent time with a cardboard cutout of Bowie rather than the Starman himself.

Granted, Stardust doesn't attempt to relay the full story of Bowie's life. Instead, the plot focuses on a specific point in Bowie's career. It's 1971, and Bowie (Johnny Flynn; Emma) flies to America for his first tour of the country during a wobbly moment in his career. "Space Oddity" has topped the charts, but neither of his follow up albums have achieved success, and Bowie comes to believe that America needs to know him to fall in love. His lack of a work visa means he can't perform music for pay. Instead, his tour consists of interviewing with key people that his tour manager, the now-legendary Ron Oberman (Marc Maron; "GLOW") has booked and believes can give Bowie the exposure he needs. Bowie's fears that he, like his half-brother Terry Burns, will be overtaken by mental health disorders, leave him reluctant to reveal "the man behind the music" and alienate the very people he needs to charm. The film presents Bowie's alt-personaes -- Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke -- as tidy solutions to both challenges depicted. The mystique draws in fans and allows Bowie to safely explore other parts of the schizophrenic mind he fears will one day overtake him. 

Ron Oberman in STARDUST
Marc Maron as Ron Oberman in Gabriel Range's STARDUST.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release. 

Let's start with the biggest sins. The film was made without the permission of the David Bowie estate and so doesn't include any of the singer's iconic music. The director's statement excuses the notable absence by reminding us that at that time, Bowie regularly performed covers as part of his shows. So instead, the film's soundtrack consists of contemporaries Bowie admired like the Yardbirds and Jacques Brel. Okay, fine, but the performances themselves fail to impress and don't paint Bowie as an artist with any charisma. Even the final concert, where Bowie goes full Ziggy Stardust, comes across as lackluster, and in a biopic about a musician, that's a difficult flaw to overlook.

The filming of the movie, likewise, lacks artistry. The whole thing is shot in a rather simple and straightforward way. While there's no sin in keeping things subdued, since the film wants to focus on Bowie's interior journey and his mental health during the tour, more could have been done showing viewers what he is feeling through flashbacks, artistic renderings of thoughts, or choices of light, color, or camera angles to reveal a deteriorating or anxious mental state. The movie does this a little, through a music video-styled scene on a spaceship that is repeated throughout the movie. And a mirror scene attempts to show the fragmented thoughts Bowie feels. These scenes grab attention for a moment, but more could have been done in this vein stylistically. 

Angie Bowie in STARDUST
Jena Malone as Angie Barnett in Gabriel Range's STARDUST.
Courtesy of IFC Films An IFC Films Release.

Probably the worst transgression of Stardust, however, lies in Flynn's characterization of David Bowie. The lack of resemblance alone isn't the issue, although Bowie's elven face and demeanor were such an important part of his appeal. Taron Edgerton doesn't resemble Sir Elton John in the slightest yet this didn't stop him from emulating the British singer in Rocketman. Makeup and costume artists can do wonders in creating an image, if not a replica, of a notable face. Still, other than giving Flynn a wig, some costumes, and pointy teeth, almost no effort has been made to create a visage of Bowie. And Flynn's performance fails to resemble Bowie in mannerisms, facial expressions, or speaking cadence.

In fact, the Bowie depicted in Stardust doesn't seem much like a star, even one in development. He's portrayed as insecure, anxious, and unpleasant throughout. Again, we expect to see some of that. Biopics usually attempt to show a well-rounded view of their subjects, flaws and all. But we don't want to watch our favorite celebrities in a story with no shining moments. Sure, we witness a wild party or two, but these moments seem thrown in as tokens, rather than believable parts of the story. A film about Bowie's tour of America should allow us to see a star in transition, with fun moments woven together with the hard times. And the jump from the tour to the final show skips too much time. It's the equivalent of saying, "And they all lived happily ever after," with no resolution to the conflict. 

David Bowie in a scene from STARDUST
Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in Gabriel Range's STARDUST.
Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Marc Maron as Oberman does fine work in his role as the tour manager who believes in Bowie enough to drive him across country and put up with his spoiled artist antics. And Jena Malone as Bowie's wife, Angie, is wasted in a movie that reveals little about the couple's marriage. Malone's role is relegated to being the naggy wife, complaining about her lot in life. 

While the world surely needs a postmortem David Bowie biopic, Stardust fizzles in its attempt to honor Bowie's legacy. For a more inspired alternative, 1 of My Stories recommends Velvet Goldmine (1998), directed by Todd Haynes, a Citizen Kane-esque nonlinear film about a pop glam rock star patterned after David Bowie. Or skip the biopic route and indulge in another viewing of Jim Henson's Labryinth (1986).

Release info: Available in select theaters, digital & cable VOD on November 25, 2020

Final score: 2 out of 5

Stardust movie poster