Choosing to set Stardust in 1971 is a bold, if odd, choice.
The first major biopic on David Bowie since his death in 2016, it follows the trend of Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman et al. in charting the career of some of music’s most influential acts. But crucially, Stardust focuses on Bowie before the monumental success – set just as Ziggy Stardust rises out of the ashes of Space Oddity‘s lukewarm reception.
Yet it really doesn’t follow the trend of these aforementioned biopics at all: it’s more of an exploration of the music industry; the politics behind it, the battles with labels, the gigs that aren’t as successful. It could be argued that Bowie isn’t even the main character – we certainly learn just as much about his American agent, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) as Bowie – with the development of their friendship, and their often-fruitless attempts to get Bowie noticed, forming the crux of Stardust‘s conflict.
Which isn’t to say it’s not an interesting watch: it’s refreshing to see a music biopic that shies away from an artist’s most successful – and therefore most publicised – era, with Bowie’s career post-Space Oddity on tenterhooks, teetering between changing music or fading into obscurity. The precarity of this position isn’t quite explored enough in the script, penned by Christopher Bell and director Gabriel Range – which is perhaps where Stardusts‘s main flaw lies – it’s just slightly lifeless.
It’s as if the film knows how eclectic and revolutionary an artist Bowie was – it goes for left-field visuals, and touches upon his gender-fluid wardrobe with regularity – but the filmmaking spark behind it doesn’t share this vivacity. Perhaps the most contentious element of Stardust‘s production is the lack of approval from Bowie’s estate, and the film definitely suffers for it: the vacuum felt by a lack of his music in the soundtrack is glaringly apparent. Of course, the last thing you want is for a biopic to be too close to its subject – 2014’s Unbroken is a good example of this – but for Bowie’s family to flat-out distance themselves from the film definitely suggests it isn’t an accurate representation, which is only evidenced by the baffling thesis seen at the start: ‘what follows is (mostly) fiction’. If that’s the case, then what’s the point?
Yet there’s a clear admiration for Bowie and his work in Range’s direction. The touching subplot that runs in the background – regarding Bowie’s mental struggles, and the trend of mental illness through his family – is often touching and uplifting, but is placed in the background in favour of scenes showing radio interviews, bickers with the label and debates over Bowie’s style that perhaps present him more as a marquee than a man. The performance scenes, however, are handled with care – particularly the debut of Ziggy Stardust at Friars Aylesbury in 1972, a scene that feels on-par with more high-profile and higher-budget biopics.
And that might be where Stardust‘s problem lies: it doesn’t have the backing, either financially or creatively, to do justice to such an interesting subject. Johnny Flynn, relatively unknown until his casting as Bowie, does a fine job in the role, playing a Bowie who is timid, far less famous, but still intrinsically himself, even if the transition between David to Ziggy Stardust is somewhat abrupt, handled almost entirely through the hamfisted line, ‘if you can’t be yourself… be someone else’. Jena Malone is equally good (if underused) as Angie Bowie, a spritely and fierce portrayal of Bowie’s wife who steals her scenes, and regretfully isn’t in the film more.
As someone who isn’t a fan of Bowie’s music to begin with, perhaps it’s easier to be lukewarm on a biopic that seemed doomed to fail from the start; not backed by his estate, and harangued by fans when its first trailer released. Stardust by no means bad – as a road-trip-cum-exploration-of-the-music-industry, it’s very watchable – but as a cinematic charting of one of music’s most visionary, unique and enticing figures, it certainly misses the mark. It toys with Bowie’s more eclectic identity, but never commits until very late on – perhaps a byproduct of setting the film in a pre-Stardust era. One day, it’s certain, a Bowie biopic will have the backing and creative force to do justice to Bowie’s undeniable legacy, but Stardust isn’t that film. It’s a biopic that should’ve glistened with creativity, but instead fades into the background.