Honestly, it doesn’t bother me that Stardust, directed by Gabriel Range (The Day Britain Stopped), wasn’t sanctioned by the family of David Bowie, whose early career is explored here. I get that the family wants to control and use of Bowie’s story, image and music, but sometimes an outside perspective is required for a certain amount of honestly in the storytelling. And Stardust is only really meant to shine a light on a sliver of Bowie’s life—1971, when the still-struggling, 24-year-old singer/songwriter has just released his newest album, The Man Who Sold the World. He’s desperate for his U.S. record company, Mercury Records, to promote the dark, quirky work, and is willing to do anything to become famous and appreciated in America, including a promotional tour across the country.
Leaving behind his pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone), who often pushes him more than he’d like to be, Bowie (Johnny Flynn, who bares a striking resemblance) hops a plane to America and becomes the responsibility of his one true fan at the label, publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron). He’s given very little money and doesn’t even make sure that Bowie has a work visa so he can actually perform concerts in the states, leaving him only able to do interviews and the occasional private party (a performance in front of a vacuum cleaner salesman convention goes swimmingly). What the film turns into is a road movie in which Bowie becomes increasingly disheartened about his success in America, stuck in a car with a guy who believes in him more than anyone else in the country and who’s helping Bowie discover what it is the music is really saying and what type of performer he wants to be moving forward.
The filmmaker postulates that Bowie’s fear of being diagnosed as mentally unstable—a condition that ran in his family and struck his brother Terry (Derek Moran) particularly hard—was what helped create the record, and he’s terrified to say that out loud to any reporter. Instead, when pushed to talk about the meaning of the songs, he launches into cliche rock star nonsense about drugs, dressing in women’s clothing, and getting laid. Since the film didn’t get permission to use Bowie’s music (“Ziggy Stardust” is mentioned as his only hit to date, but we never hear it), the film suffers greatly to the point where I question the point of making the film at all. But there’s enough here in Flynn’s solid performance and Maron’s role as a flim-flam man, selling this confused young man as a trippier version of Bob Dylan.
Despite the lack of the subject’s music (anytime we hear Bowie perform, he’s doing a cover of someone else’s song, which he did do at times), there is something inherently interesting about watching Flynn and Maron interact. Bowie and Oberman are polar opposites, but they find common ground in their favorite musicians and grow from there, and it’s charming watching the friendship blossom. Clearly, Bowie needs a crash course in how the music business works in America, and Oberman needs to understand how musicians who see image as part of their music think and operate. The film throws in a few famous names from the period, including actors playing such musical luminaries as Mark Bolan, Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti, and I guess that’s cool, but it doesn’t really add much to the mix. Ultimately, the film accomplishes what it sets out to do: give us a glimpse into one of the more complicated and indefinable musicians to ever walk the earth, and capture him when he was forced to be humble and take stock of what he was doing a why. Stardust is lacking in a great number of ways, but on that level at least, it succeeds, giving us the early thought processes that led Bowie to try on different identities rather than face the reality of his life head on.
The film is now available via VOD.
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