Both early stills and trailers left me with nothing but apathy towards Gabriel Range’s biographical film about the late, great David Bowie; we don’t need another tribute to the man who wrote Heroes, surely? We’re awash with reverent juke-box musicals anyway, and the Thin White Duke was never down with the idea in the first place. Indeed, Velvet Goldmine is one of the best rock biopics precisely because Bowie didn’t want to be involved. Estate-authorised, sanitised films are such a bore, and unauthorised biogs like Todd Haynes’ version, which opens with Oscar Wilde being kidnapped by aliens, are preferable to the messianic love-ins that many would like to make. This one wisely establishes itself as ‘fiction’ from the opening credits; there’s surely plenty of room for alternative takes on Bowie’s multi-faceted life.
So don’t expect to hear a note of David Bowie’s music here, just period covers; if Bowie is evoked, it’s a tribute to the writing, action and direction. Stardust has met with plenty of unfavourable reviews, presumably because it’s not the all-singing, all-dancing venture many would like to see. In fact, this isn’t a decade-spanning epic; the focus is exclusively in 1971, when Bowie (Johnny Flynn) was on tour in America and wrestling with publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) to create a commercial image that worked for both Bowie and the world. So this is more of a road movie, or an Elvis and Nixon-style indie drama, which seeks to nail down a transformative moment in Bowie’s career rather than launch a sing-a-long DVD. Imitating Bowie is a difficult thing, given the inimitable nature of the performer, but Flynn does a great job; while many fans may not be interested in Bowie’s appreciation for Anthony Newley, that’s the kind of detail that’s examined here, as well as family issues and relationship problems. This is Bowie as an outsider, as a loser, wandering around in Y-fronts and alienating those around him; the confident performer we know is still just around the corner.
Critics might carp, but Stardust makes good on its promise; to depict a pivotal moment, and place a 2020 emphasis on Bowie’s willingness to rock the boat. A early scene of US customs ‘soft processing’ captures the negative atmosphere to transgender issues circa 1971. Range’s film will likely be castigated for what it is not (a Walk the Line, Ray, Bohemian Rhapsody-style greatest hits package) while gaining faint praise for what it is; a small, intelligent drama that riffs creatively on the legend of David Bowie. Well acted by Flynn, it’s not as giddy or poetic as Velvet Goldmine, but still of genuine interest to anyone taken with the great man. Like A Star is Born, Stardust doubles down on issues of authenticity; ‘I don’t want to be mad,’ Bowie confesses late in the film, ‘I’ve got other plans…’ and that sense of against-the-grain transformation makes Stardust well worth a look.
Thanks to Vertigo for advanced access to this film. Stardust can be seen in the UK via streaming services from Jan 15th 2021.