Johnny Flynn plays David Bowie in Stardust, a film that struggles to get to grips with its subject matter.
It sounds like a match made in heaven. A film about David Bowie, a unique, charismatic performer, with Johnny Flynn, one of the most exciting new acting talents of recent years. Even the title, Stardust, promises magic.
If only. The one finger you could never point at Bowie was boring. One reason the film stands accused is that, according to the credits, it’s “(mostly) fiction.”
We’ll probably never know if the truth was more interesting than this story of his first visit to America, post-‘Space Oddity’ but pre-‘Ziggy Stardust’.
It doesn’t bode well from the start here: without the right paperwork, Bowie (Flynn) can’t stage any concerts and is restricted to giving interviews, set up by PR rep Ron Oberman (Marc Maron). But Bowie has his finger firmly on the sabotage button and won’t play ball. Pressures from home come from his ambitious wife Angie (Jena Malone) and his mentally ill older brother Terry (Derek Moran).
It’s a story with potential. In 1971, Bowie’s career was at a critical juncture: he could have been another one-hit wonder or something more significant. We all know how it turned out, but that’s no excuse for the idea being so underdeveloped. Nor for a narrative that quickly runs out of steam only to be replaced by the usual clichés that go with rock star bio-pics – the fractured marriage, the clumsy inclusion of other famous names, people not understanding his art.
It doesn’t help that Bowie is strangely passive here rather than enigmatic and, when he does speak, he doesn’t know either when to stop or when to preserve a sense of mystery.
One aspect of the story that is apparently true is that Bowie stayed with Oberman and his family when he arrived in America, because of the cut-price tour’s minuscule budget. The relationship between the artist and his PR is the high spot of the film, thanks to an energetic performance from Maron. Their road trip entertains, playing on the fact that Bowie’s career is on the rise, while Oberman’s is heading downwards.
But it’s impossible to escape that what could have been a revelatory insight into one of Bowie’s most formative stages disappointingly meanders all over the place. It’s crying out for more than a sprinkling of the magic in the title.
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