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Review: Stardust

November 27, 2020

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Do you want to watch a David Bowie biopic where “Space Oddity” is talked about but never actually heard? That’s the question I kept asking myself while watching Stardust, a movie that is ostensibly about the legendary rock star but doesn’t actually feature any of his music.

Considering that the majority of people flocking to see a Bowie biopic will be doing so for his music, it’s a curious choice to even attempt to make a film about him without first securing the rights to his songs. Then again, Stardust is a very curious film, and one that raises a lot of questions.

Directed by Gabriel Range, who co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Bell, Stardust raises eyebrows right from the start, with a title card informing us that the story has been somewhat fictionalized. The film simply never really comes together, not least of which as a biography of its central subject. Because without the music to back it up, the film feels mostly inert, struggling to work as either a biopic or as a piece of fan-made entertainment.

The film stars Johnny Flynn in the role of David Bowie, and focuses on the English musician’s first trip across the pond in 1971 to promote his album The Man Who Sold the World in America. Bowie has already scored radio play with the song “Space Oddity,” but the album itself has tanked and his record label is struggling with how to market him to mainstream listeners in the United States, who are used to British exports being more like The Beatles.

The record label has failed to secure him the proper work visa, in a sign of how little faith they have in him, meaning that he isn’t legally allowed to perform in the country. He becomes the charge of a man named Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), an eager publicist from Mercury Records. Oberman does his best to book him a series of private gigs at conferences, and tries to get him an interview with Rolling Stone, but Bowie grows frustrated with being misunderstood by American reporters and audiences.

Instead of being a jukebox musical like Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, Stardust is more of a stripped down character drama, showing Bowie, who would come to be known for his outlandish personas, while he was still in the process of figuring himself out. In theory, this approach could have been interesting, a way of stripping away much of what we know about an artist to allow us to focus on other aspects of their life and who they were as a person.

But we get the distinct sense throughout Stardust that they simply couldn’t get the royalties to Bowie’s music, and without it, the film falls flat. Yes, Bowie was a persona, a stage name adopted by David Jones, but to really understand who he was, we need to be hearing his music and seeing him perform. The film introduces us to its version of Bowie as a nervous, cross-dressing man being questioned at the airport in the opening scene, but we are never really shown the juxtaposition of how he would come alive on stage.

There are flashes of intrigue, but Stardust also doesn’t really go deep enough into Bowie’s psyche to make it all that interesting as a character study. The film’s strongest narrative through-line comes from Bowie’s older half-brother, Terry Burns (Derek Moran), who is struggling with mental illness that David is terrified to inherit. On the other hand, a subplot with David’s pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone) back in England feels underdeveloped to the point that it probably could have been left out entirely, with Malone feeling tragically underused.

The film is vaguely about the creation of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, who we do see emerge in the final reel, but it feels strange to see a facsimile of Bowie performing with other music playing on the soundtrack. Yes, it all comes back to the music, because without it, Stardust barely even registers as being about David Bowie. Flynn does do a pretty good job in the leading role, but he never becomes completely recognizable as Bowie either, and could have just as easily been portraying a fictional musician as well.

Flynn and Maron do deliver decent performances, and there are some pretty good scenes where it’s just the two of them discussing music, suggesting that Range probably could have left names out of this and turned it into an alright musical drama about fictional characters instead. But, as a whole, Stardust can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity. For a film about an artist as daring as Bowie, it feels stilted, and without his songs, it never really comes alive. You could no doubt craft a compelling film out of Bowie’s life story, think something akin to Rocketman, but Stardust isn’t that film.

Stardust is being released in selected theatres and on demand today. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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