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‘Stardust’ Review: The Thin White Duke gets a thin, light biopic

With 'Stardust,' director Gabriel Range zeroes in on a pivotal moment in David Bowie's career, but fails to reveal any larger truths about the rock star.

Marc Maron and Johnny Flynn star in 'Stardust,' about David Bowie's first tour of the U.S., from director Gabriel Range.
(Image: © IFC)

Our Verdict

Director Gabriel Range fails to tap into who Bowie was - even if he didn't know himself - after spending too much time on a moment in his career he seems to think was pivotal.

For

  • ⚡️ Marc Maron is almost predictably believable as the publicist who believes in Bowie but has to convince America of his greatness, one person at a time.

Against

  • ⚡️ Narrowing the focus to one period in Bowie's career, the film fails to capture his essence with the energy of Todd Haynes' 'Velvet Goldmine'.
  • ⚡️ An absence of Bowie's music gives audiences no evidence to counter the repeated refrain that he's a misunderstood genius.

If music biopics were pretty much ruined going forward by Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, filmmakers have not yet found a consistent workaround to successfully explore the creative and personal lives of their artistic heroes without seeming like, well, a parody of that film’s expert parody. Stardust, a new film about David Bowie, zeroes in on a pivotal moment from the career of one of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century, and somehow it manages to be both too specific and not specific enough, giving way too much detail about certain aspects and not about others. Nevertheless, Johnny Flynn (Song One) does his best to fill Bowie’s high-heeled mary janes, even if director and co-writer Gabriel Range (Death of a President) doesn’t do much but meander as the rock star teeters on the precipice of superstardom.

Part of the problem with telling part of Bowie’s story is that Todd Haynes told almost the whole thing in Velvet Goldmine, and like Stardust, also did it unofficially. In fact, Haynes’ film captured the inscrutable performer’s ephemeral appeal better than an authorized biography probably ever could. Curiously, however, it becomes a sort of primer or set of cliff’s notes for this film, filling in details and background about characters and relationships that Range and co-screenwriter Christopher Bell don’t have time for, or don’t interest them. If you have seen Goldmine, for example, you’d understand much more clearly that Bowie’s wife Angie (Jena Malone) isn’t a real Brit but an American model whose libertine attitudes about art and relationships are as much an affectation as her accent. In this film, she seems more in control of Bowie’s career than he does, throwing tantrums more out of self-interest than genuine concern for David that his manager Tony DeFries (Julian Richings) was not doing enough to achieve him the success she feels like he — and they — deserve.

And so, the movie opens in 1971, after Bowie releases The Man Who Sold The World, one of dozens of records from that era that transformed perceptions forever but went largely ignored by the general public at the time. After DeFries convinces Mercury Records to support the film with a modest tour, Bowie travels to the U.S. where he learns he’s been saddled with publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), who believes in the record but doesn’t have the clout or the cash to get him in front of people who can really make a difference commercially or even critically. Setting out across America in the back seat of Oberman’s mother’s wood-paneled station wagon, Bowie quietly begins to canvas the country, performing small gigs at trade shows and doing cryptic, provocative interviews with reluctant reporters, and later, family-friendly radio stations where his music and his fey sexuality isn’t really suitable.

But even a Rolling Stone interview and an underwhelming encounter with none other than Andy Warhol don’t reassure Bowie that he’s on the right track, especially when he begins to fear it’s the same one as his older brother Terry (Derek Moran), who was diagnosed years before as a schizophrenic. As his promising career threatens to stall and he returns to the UK with his frock tucked between his legs, Bowie contemplates his next move, turning back to music to help him define not only his future but his very identity.

One thing that Stardust and Velvet Goldmine share in common is that neither film obtained the rights to Bowie’s music. Haynes’ film solved the problem by creating new originals with contemporary artists alongside a collection of covers and glam rock classics, but the absence here of any songs by Bowie other than performances of those by other artists that he covered is near fatal at a moment in his career where his genius was self-evident but unfortunately not yet recognized by the public and the recording industry as a whole. Personally speaking, The Man Who Sold The World is not an album of his I know particularly well; David and Angie and Tony keep reminding the audience that it’s brilliant, but its absence will make anyone unfamiliar with it wonder if they’re right. And to, you end up watching David Bowie struggle his way through a publicity tour where he doesn’t explain anything about the album, or much of anything about himself, and may very reasonably find yourself questioning why anyone actually should have given a shit about him at that time.

What is eventually revealed about the album is that it explores mental illness — paranoia and delusion — and the fact that poor Terry is mentally unhealthy may be a reason why he proves so willfully unhelpful when multiple interviewers try to get at what’s inspiring him, what he wants to say, and who he truly is. But as if Walk Hard never happened, Range and Bell frame this meager tour around the ups and downs of his older brother, whose repeated protests of “I’m not crazy” begin to sound a lot like “the wrong kid died!” after his diagnosis and decline start to haunt Bowie’s memories. So the questions become, did he record the album to exorcise his anxieties, or try and learn how to accept them? Or is it an expression of the feelings he thought his brother experienced? Or was it merely a superficial shell for his own musical explorations and he’s simply afraid to admit that to journalists searching for depth? The movie refuses to speculate, so audiences are left without a clear path towards Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust future, but end up there anyway.

Playing a musician who’s known for mischievous, chameleonic transformations, Johnny Flynn does his best to inhabit Bowie, particularly at a moment the filmmakers want to characterize as confusing to him, but he never finds the man inside the real-life icon. David Bowie wrestling with his doubts is an absolutely riveting hook, but the way they’re explored makes Flynn seems like he doesn’t know how to play the role rather than definitely playing him at a moment of frustration and indecision. Meanwhile as Oberman, Maron easily and immediately conveys the perspective of a used-car salesman not fully convinced how reliable his wares are beneath the hood, but again, we’re never quite sure if he’s really trying his best (or just able) to get Bowie worthy gigs, or he’s hustling his client along with everyone else in the path of their station wagon. Conversely, Malone is too talented to be throwing her energy into a character this thinly sketched, but she works to make Angie more complex than she likely was on the page, with mixed results.

Ultimately, there’s something at least a little funny about one unauthorized music biopic that would benefit from watching another unauthorized music biopic first, but Range’s film does not return the favor, and in fact seems more likely to inspire a trip to Wikipedia afterward instead of enhancing key moments in its predecessor. Because the truth about Velvet Goldmine is that it condenses the events of Bowie’s life and combines them with the kind of mythmaking pixie dust that makes its story feel true, when Range’s film quite possibly adheres to the real events of his history but never makes us care about them, even if we believe it — and so, Stardust becomes a movie about an icon that demystifies our interest in learning more. Perhaps the filmmakers are making a point about Bowie’s own fascination with surfaces by purposely exploring events in his life without digging beneath them, but more likely, the lesson to take away from telling this story in this specific way, much less at this moment in Bowie’s storied career, is that sometimes artists achieve success before they figure themselves out, so it’s a good idea to not give them too much credit before they’ve earned it. David Bowie’s life and work deserves multiple movies made about it, but Stardust doesn’t tell us anything about him (or it) that we need to know.

Stardust will be available on VOD November 25th, 2020.