Stardust is released digitally this week (Picture: IFC Films)
Music biopics often depend on the songbooks at their core. Bohemian Rhapsody was divisive, but few could deny the power of its climactic recreation of Queen’s transcendent Live Aid appearance. Rocketman excelled because of Taron Egerton’s spirited and charismatic renditions of some of Elton John’s biggest hits.
It’s very rare – though not unprecedented – for a biopic to work without flashes of the memorable music of its subject.
Sadly, new David Bowie biopic Stardust falls foul of this. It was made without the cooperation of the late legend’s estate – and, as a result, never really gets near the unique persona of the man who would become Ziggy.
To its credit, director Gabriel Range’s movie doesn’t try to pretend to be something more definitive. ‘What follows is (mostly) fiction,’ declares the opening title card.
The film focuses on a small fragment of Bowie’s life, with Johnny Flynn’s take on the singer embarking on a very low-key American tour to promote his struggling album The Man Who Sold the World in the early 1970s. His handler is low-ranking record company publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), while his wife Angie (Jena Malone) is largely relegated to making angry phone calls to him from the UK as her pregnant belly expands.
The first half of the movie has the road trip feel of recent Oscar-winner Green Book, unfolding as Bowie – unable to play proper gigs because of visa issues – performs fruitlessly for vacuum salesmen while Oberman attempts to woo journalists. ‘I’m gonna get you on the cover of Rolling Stone,’ he promises rather too optimistically.
In many ways, this feels like a movie of hindsight. We want Bowie to succeed because we know what he’ll become, rather than because the film shows you his genius.
The lack of the music is a big part of this.
Having not secured the rights to the frequently mentioned Space Oddity or any of the tracks Bowie performed when he developed the Ziggy Stardust persona, it has its leading man perform covers.
None of Bowie’s music could be used (Picture: IFC Films)
The Flynn-penned Velvet Underground homage Good Ol’ Jane is a fun song in isolation, but it never feels like the creation or the performance of a once-in-a-lifetime talent on the verge of exploding into psychedelic life.
There’s no denying the affection towards Bowie in this story, with Range and Flynn clearly immensely respectful to the man whose story they’re trying to tell. However, it never shakes the feeling of an unofficial pencil sketch – like an early noughties football game for the PlayStation that had you play as ‘David Backhim’ for ‘Manchester Reds’ because they couldn’t secure the rights to real player and team names.
Flynn is a terrific and raw performer, as evidenced by his breakout turn in the brilliant Beast and his supporting turn in last year’s Jane Austen adaptation Emma. But here, he’s hamstrung by the ludicrous fake teeth and a characterisation of Bowie which never gets to the heart of his psyche. Sometimes he’s naïve, often he’s arrogant and sometimes he breaks into unprovoked performances of the mime arts.
This inconsistency is later suggested as a manifestation of Bowie’s concern he will suffer from the mental illness which exists within his family tree, but that element of the story is never given the care and attention it needs. It feels like window dressing.
Instead, the movie’s third act abandons the mildly enjoyable road trip premise for a more internal and ultimately tangled story.
Range’s script, co-written with Christopher Bell, establishes the various threads which will lead Bowie to Ziggy Stardust, but never bothers to tie them together. Instead, an abrupt flash-forward brings the audience to a fully-formed Ziggy, emerging on stage in what is supposed to be a euphoric coming out party for a star.
Without a classic Bowie track to perform, though, it all feels muted – a scalpel-sharp music icon blunted into an empty caricature.
Stardust is released digitally on Friday.