Star Man

Compared to some friends, my knowledge of David Bowie’s music is fairly limited. I like his hits, but it was seeing his films The Hunger, Labyrinth and The Man Who Fell to Earth that piqued my interest in him. The other day, I mentioned Stardust, the new Bowie biopic, to a friend. They scoffed, calling it “the David Bowie movie without David Bowie songs.”

I looked up Stardust on the web to find scathing headlines and reviews. Some sounded like angsty music fans, angry at the very idea of a Bowie biopic featuring no Bowie needle drop. I get it. A film celebrating the artist without their art being featured will make some feel cheated but, damn, the hate for this movie is so strong. Full disclosure, with the rare exception of movies like Todd Hayne’s I’m Not There and Clint Eastwood’s Bird, I usually have a “meh” reaction toward most music biopics. Films like Straight Outta Compton and Bohemian Rhapsody felt more like bloated self-serving Wikipedia entries to me. Regardless, I checked out Stardust at the Terrace Theater recently.

The movie begins in 1971 as a pre-Ziggy Stardust Bowie (Johnny Flynn) lands in the U.S., living off of the international fame he got from his 1969 hit “Space Oddity.” With the little fame he has left slipping from his grasp, he discovers he’s been given no visa or permission to perform in America. That’s where his American label publicist, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), steps in. Since he can’t do concerts, Oberman gets Bowie a gig playing at a Eureka vacuum-cleaner salesman convention and a Christian radio station. From there the movie flashes back and forth, giving us the backstory on his relationships with his wife and brother while Bowie and Oberman have brushes with celebs that could ultimately influence his next artistic step. 

Stardust is not a great movie by any means. It’s got a slew of groan-worthy cliches that you find in every biopic about musicians: scenes where others just don’t get the artist, ham-fisted drama, moments that are Easter eggs to future hit songs. Flynn doesn’t impersonate Bowie, but that didn’t bother me even if his performance was underwhelming at points. Maron’s role honestly reminded me of Maron. It suited the character well. Unfortunately, Malone is vastly underutilized, playing the role of a screeching wife that did little else. And, yes, the lack of music makes those flaws more bare. 

On the plus side, it strengthens in the final stretch. Themes of mental illness are tackled, implying it influenced the creation of Ziggy Stardust. I really appreciated the alternate reality approach to the Bowie mythos.  

Director Gabriel Range is no stranger to alternate realities. His controversial 2006 film, Death of a President, imagines what the world would have been like if George W. Bush had been assassinated. The results were a mixed bag, as well. Stardust definitely left me with quite a few questions about the movie and the music biopic genre. While I didn’t get the impression that it was a big budget affair, it didn’t strike me as cheap either, which makes me curious as to how this got funded. Was it before or after their failed attempts at getting the music rights? Did it have any effect on how the story was told or written? Is that the reason why the film tells the audience that, “What follows is (mostly) fiction?” Is this whole movie a case of working with what you got and making lemonade out of life’s little lemons?  

As the closing credits rolled, I felt like I saw an ambitious, albeit mediocre, movie. I wasn’t cheated the way some critics say they felt. Reviews calling it “wretched” and “velvet garbage” strike me as critics just getting dunk fever on a short hoop.

I can understand regular theater-goers being turned off by this film when hits like Coal Miner’s Daughter, Walk the Line and La Bamba have helped lay a nice framework to copy. If you’re pining for something of that ilk, you’ll be disappointed. I wasn’t as bothered because there seemed to be a pure intent at making something a little bit different from the average biopic. 

As a professional armchair director, this takes me back to a question I had about the “(mostly) fictional” comment in the movie’s intro. The subject is a guy who’d one day garner fame pretending to be an alien. Why not lean into it even further and make it totally fictional? Maybe even pepper in some science fiction? I’m pretty sure the subject would’ve been all about that.