In the early part of his career, David Bowie was ranging into all different types of modes. When he finally found himself, it was not by rejecting the phoniness of the music industry, but by simply beginning to write his own roles: From an androgynous alien to a drug-addled rock sensualist. Claiming to be bisexual or a fascist (despite little proof of the former and a lifetime of evidence against the latter) was part of the act. More than anyone before or since, he turned every part of the music business, from manufactured personas to big concert tours, into art, all while producing a body of work that rapidly evolved from each album, and still remaining emotionally tangible.
No one except Bowie (who was as well a gifted actor) could ever had played all of those parts. Mastering just one early iteration seems to be out-of-reach of everyone involved in Stardust, a relatively inept biopic that doesn’t feature any music by Bowie or his cotemporaries and stars a guy who doesn’t look or sound much like the man. But then again, that was also true of Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ very good interpretation of the Ziggy Stardust-era rock cosmos and the rise and fall of gender-bending glam. But that film succeeded at capturing the important core value of Bowie, conveying what made its stand-ins into idols. As played by actor-musician Johnny Flynn, the Halloween-costume Bowie seen in Stardust is a sorrowful, charmless wannabe. Which is to say that the film fails where just single photo of the chameleonic musician would succeed: It makes Bowie dull.
Despite opening with a tongue-in-cheek homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey and a disclaimer that warns that the film is “(mostly) fiction,” Stardust is a largely straightforward retelling of Bowie’s first visit to the U.S. in 1971, a trip that’s considered to be a pivotal moment in his creative development. It was the first time Bowie encountered the music of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and Moondog. Among the many unimaginative liberties and shortcuts taken by the film’s director, Gabriel Range, is the decision to depict this as an origin story to the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars — rather than the LP that the trip actually produced, Hunky Dory. Everything here has seemingly been left to the viewer’s imagination(?). Even the new world of America is fuzzy; most of the film (which was shot in Canada) consists of sparse hotels and roadsides, through which Bowie is accompanied by his optimistic publicist, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), as they both run into real-life characters that are, for some reason, played by actors (Flynn included, actually) that are fifteen-to-thirty years older than their roles.
Stardust is filled with qualities of that kind. Unable to use any songs from Bowie’s catalog, Range finds a potentially intriguing alternative in having the star perform covers, all of which the real Bowie either recorded or performed live. But Flynn’s limp, hoarse interpretations — most of which seem to be sung out of his range — do not suggest a historical talent. In fact, it’s easy to understand why this Bowie isn’t a star. Whether it’s due to a failure of demystification or direction, everyone here seems to be having a drag; the energy levels are low, the characterizations mostly limited to making sure everyone’s wigs are on the right way. It likely says something that the only variety comes from occasional autocratic appearances by the star’s first wife, Angie Bowie (Jena Malone).
Range and his co-writer, Christopher Bell, attempt to give the movie a dramatic core by emphasizing Bowie’s relationship with his half-brother, Terry Burns (Derek Moran), who began to develop symptoms of schizophrenia around the time his younger sibling started to pursue a musical career. There is a debate among biographers and Bowie super-fans about the role that Terry’s mental illness played in the development of his songwriting. However though, reducing a multifaceted artist’s body of work to a single root/cause only makes its subject less illuminating. Lacking the real-life Bowie’s music, artistry, or charisma, Stardust‘s humdrum version is simply a mediocre jerk who needs roleplaying therapy to deal with his demons. What his demons might be is presumably part of the mystique. But just as the film’s flash-forward finale shows, this thin, unenthused depiction of the culture-changing icon feels like only a cheap bar-band. Providing zilch amount of insight into its central artist, Stardust presents a listless version of David Bowie, never coming close to finding the core sophistication or artful inventiveness that came with him.
Stardust is available on VOD