Lifelong Bowie fan Andy Polaris is floored by Stardust, a fictionalised new movie about the birth pangs of Ziggy
Expectations were already low for Stardust, a Bowie biopic from director Gabriel Range, when a trailer was poorly received after appearing recently online. The film itself opens with the stark announcement “This Is (Mostly) Fiction” so I am braced for a bumpy ride.
Set in 1971, two years after Bowie’s first bona fide hit, we find Bowie (Johnny Flynn) frustrated at the lukewarm reception to his just released third album The Man Who Sold the World. Its first single, All The Madmen, has sunk without trace. We see him with the band’s manager Tony De Fries discussing strategy with a shrill Angie Bowie (Jena Malone) demanding a swift change of fortune. A solo tour of North America is scheduled between January and February 1971 and hampered on arrival there by his lack of a work visa, resulting in no official gigs. His rival Marc Bolan (James Cade) is briefly seen backstage (the actor is really not pretty enough for the role) and we are eventually introduced to the one person at Mercury Records Stateside who shows interest in Bowie, publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron).
The film then takes us on a ponderous road trip in a spacious Ford Ranch Ranger across America with a zero expense account searching for opportunities to present Bowie as an interesting up-and-coming British star to fit into the gap “between Elvis and Dylan”. The problem of marketing Bowie with a gloom-laden album (miserable, depressing, obscure is the corporate verdict) was already an uphill struggle, not helped by the singer’s flamboyant image that preceded glam-rock and proves too fey for US rock fans. This is where the fiction takes over, though the meeting between Oberman and Bowie did take place. A viral photo of Bowie sitting on a suburban sofa becomes the origin of an expanded story that blurs facts and timelines. In the film Oberman is played by an actor in this fifties, whereas in real life he was 27 and so the personal dynamic with the 24-year-old Bowie would have been completely different – not the almost fatherly role depicted here. However the role he played in helping reinvent Bowie’s blazing persona seems indisputable after introducing him to an obscure country artist.
The film commits the cardinal sin of making David Bowie appear mundane and a lot of that fault lies in the appallingly banal script drained of humour. This is not the fascinating cryptic and cocaine-thin passenger we glimpse in the cult documentary Cracked Actor. The faded muted colours look washed out, with the exception of the first and final scenes. It even manages to make a Seventies rock-n-roll party in LA look dull – no glamorous groupies, no vintage wardrobe to swoon over, and no interesting music.
The first time we see Bowie sing is an original song by Flynn himself entitled Good Ol’ Jane, meant to emulate the Velvet Underground (Sweet Jane?), as he introduces it. Kindred spirits of sorts. This performance takes place at one of the few hastily arranged private functions, on this occasion a convention for bored vacuum cleaner salesmen. That really does become the elephant in the room. It was announced much earlier that Duncan Jones would have nothing to do with this film project and none of Bowie’s music would be licensed for the soundtrack, basically killing any chance it might have of redeeming itself. Being set specifically before the success of Ziggy, the film could never have contained the hit factory he eventually produced and is even more of a curio for that reason.
The actor playing Bowie, Johnny Flynn, valiantly attempts to capture his early essence but is 36 playing 24. He looks too old, has none of Bowie’s physicality, so casting was always going to be a problem with the fans. With a lumpen script and direction, the film flatlines for the first hour. We get flashbacks and glimpses of his family life and his older brother Terry’s protective relationship and even his parents are portrayed briefly, the latter agonising over their first son’s deteriorating mental health. Bowie appears haunted by his brother’s decline and his fear of meeting the same fate is projected throughout. As we know now, his uncertainty and the fear of failure propelled him into making vital image changes, influenced by designers Freddie Burretti and others in this period, including Iggy, Lou Reed and Warhol.
By January the metamorphosis is complete, from hippy chic into rebirth as Ziggy Stardust performing with the Spiders From Mars at the now legendary Friars Club in Aylesbury. (A somewhat controversial bronze sculpture was erected there in 2018.) The first number this key band performs in Stardust the movie is I Wish You Would from the Yardbirds – a cover version that appeared on Pin Ups! – which only amplifies the film producers’ lack of any music from Bowie’s game-changing album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. This is where the film ends with gimme your hands rock-star confidence on stage.
The only frisson of excitement for this teenage Bowie fan was seeing Angie backstage in that tight black dress with red-striped top, and pre-punk peroxide blonde short hair, swept back, and fashion forward. (The type of girls I would see later at the Lacy Lady and early punk gigs.) The styling for Flynn’s Bowie mostly relies on unkempt long hair under a bipitty-bopitty wide-brimmed hat and flares – the Ziggy hairstyle looking like shop-bought tribute wig. Although we get the Michael Fish “man-dress” and two Ziggy outfits, the lack of authentic detail elicits no wow moments reflecting Bowie’s much-scrutinised style.
The commercial success of recent films Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody made Bowie’s life story on the big screen inevitable but this witless low-budget film isn’t it. Without an endorsement by his son, there perhaps will never be another biopic on the eclectic icon. Overall verdict, failure to launch, a space oddity indeed.