- Emma Simmonds
- 11 January 2021
Johnny Flynn makes a pretty good Bowie in a good-looking but fundamentally flawed biopic
'You are not a space alien, you're from Bromley, man!' fumes Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson (Aaron Poole) when David Bowie unveils his outlandish new Ziggy Stardust persona and expects bandmate Mick to dress accordingly. This unauthorised biopic from writer-director Gabriel Range (co-scripted by Christopher Bell) demystifies a rock legend, showing Bowie's battles with identity and his fears for his mental health; it finds his music career faltering after his initial brush with fame and places him in a variety of inauspicious scenarios on his pretty disastrous first tour of America.
The versatile Johnny Flynn (Beast, Emma.) is cannily cast as Bowie and he brings just about the right mix of etherealness, insecurity and swagger to the role – playing him appositely like a Martian landing on a strange new planet. It's 1971 and the star is battling his demons after the release of his third studio album The Man Who Sold the World, a commercial failure and something he's struggling to sell to journalists due to his reluctance to get personal and talk about its dark themes.
In flashbacks, we see his fond but fragile relationship with his older half-brother Terry (Derek Moran), who was institutionalised for much of his adult life and was a formative influence on the singer. Bowie's relationship with his first wife Angie (played here by a largely very angry Jena Malone) is also fleetingly explored, in a way that feels more frustrating than illuminating.
Instead, the bulk of the movie – a film that, presumably for legal reasons, describes itself as '(mostly) fiction' – takes the form of an American road trip, where Bowie is accompanied by Mercury Records publicist Ron Oberman (GLOW's Marc Maron, playing another low-rent, aging entertainment industry type). Although Ron did significantly assist the star in America, such a road trip didn't exist and it sounds as if huge liberties have been taken with Ron's character (he was, for example, a much younger man when he met Bowie).
Stardust is nicely shot and styled, from its outer space opener onwards. But there's a big kicker. Although it features a few songs that Bowie covered and convincing-enough musical performances from Flynn, not a single Bowie track appears; given that he's supposed to be on a promotional tour of an album, it's a jarring omission and one the filmmakers should perhaps not have tried to get around. In the absence of the tunes, Range struggles to capture the right vibe, and in the absence of the musician's words, it leaves us unable to reflect on his lyrics in the context of the film's themes, missing a valuable opportunity for insight. After all, who could tell us more about David Bowie, than the man himself.
Available to watch on demand from Fri 15 Jan.