Stardust has big predecessors that make it impossible for there not to be some sort of immediate comparison. Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) came out in the last two years and made history, making it difficult to identify which movie someone was talking about when they referenced “that British musician biopic about self-love and the dangers of fame and addiction” while snatching Oscars along their way. The shadow cast over the new 70s superstar movie is even bigger this time due to the controversies around Bowie’s family. His son, Duncan Jones has made it clear that the family never authorized the movie or gave them the rights to his father’s music, and the fans supported this, criticizing Stardust’s trailer on Twitter right as it came out.
Directed by Gabriel Range, a filmmaker more known for his political dramas and documentaries, this movie didn’t just have to measure up to Oscar winners, but to answer pointed questions: Could a David Bowie biopic work without his family’s authorization? Could a musician’s story be good without using any of his music?
Absolutely yes. But it is not the 2020 movie I think about when I answer this question: its the 1998 glittery, fun and complex movie Velvet Goldmine, directed by Todd Haynes. David Bowie himself refused to give Haynes’ movie any rights, so they changed the characters’ names, got amazing songwriters to write brand new music for the movie and never called it a biopic. And the result was sensational.
But this is not what Stardust has done.
Stardust is not your typical rockstar biopic, it has made the creative choice to avoid the biography cliches of showing the big star’s rise from normalcy to global fame and the just as well-trodden path of the downfall of an already famous celebrity. Instead, the film follows Bowie (Johnny Flynn not at his best) as he tries to sell his image in the United States where his “weird sombre music” and overall penchant for dresses and high heels are not accepted by the mainstream culture. Bowie is already a star, he has a career already and seems nowhere near a “terrible downfall”. It is 1971, Ziggy Stardust and his American career are just about to be born. It is a story of self-actualization, of accepting, or not, who you are and the art of reinvention to remain relevant – something David Bowie was always very good at.
It is not, in a way, about the music. His American publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) says it himself: Bowie is not in America to sing on tour, but to drive around and talk about himself and sell his image to the “hicks”. This is the way the movie chooses to excuse its lack of music by Bowie, which almost works, but for the times you actually want to hear Johnny Flynn’s beautiful voice. It was a great choice to pick an actual singer for the role of a singer, but one that hurts more than it helps when he isn’t allowed to… you know… sing all that much.
We know he finds even bigger success after this. We are not worried about his career. And like most road trip movies the point is the journey, not the destination. Or is it?
The film’s best moments are outside the road trip storyline, and far away from American soil. It is in England where the meat of the story is, where it moves forward by going inside the celebrity’s mind and his history with mental illness. It is where Johnny Flynn’s acting is better, more fluid, as his character is allowed to not be a numb mess onscreen. It is also there that we get Bowie and Angie Barnett – an underused Jena Malone – interacting in the best and shortest scenes of Stardust.
Near the end of the movie, when Flynn is hunched over collages and magazine clippings trying to come up with the aesthetic for his Ziggy Stardust persona, he says that those colourful and striking images are America. This is the Bowiest of scenes, save from the last moments of the film, that show him onstage, and yet it feels out of place. How can spiked red hair, glitter and an alien costume represent the brown, boring and muted America we just saw minutes ago? Most importantly, in a movie about a man that had his career defined just as much by his music as by his otherworldly aesthetic, why are the visuals so subdued? Why is the production design so disappointing?
There are two kinds of film inside Stardust, and it is no surprise that Range, given his career in dramatic political storytelling, has prioritised the family drama about mental illness as the most interesting one. Even though it also the one with the least amount of David Bowie actually in it. A movie better watched without expectations of grandeur: it’s an introspective British drama first and a Rockstar Road Movie second.