This weekend saw the fifth anniversary of David Bowie’s death. Cue the retrospective, tribute shows and, more importantly, the chance to remind ourselves of his unique talent as a musician, a performer and a showman. The first attempt at a bio-pic, Stardust, arrives as the music is still whirring in our minds, so we naturally expect to hear more of it. That’s not what we get in this look at an episode in the early days of his career – and that’s not the only gap in the film.
The musical absence is because the film was made without official permission from Bowie’s family, so the makers didn’t have a license to include any of his songs. We just have to imagine them. We have to do the same when it comes to deciding how much of the story is truth and how much fiction. All we know is that it’s “(mostly) fiction.” Whatever really happened, we can only hope that it was more interesting than this story of his first visit to America – post-Space Oddity but pre-Ziggy – a trip that doesn’t get off to a good start: Bowie (Johnny Flynn) arrives minus the right paperwork, so live concerts are out of the question. All he can do is give interviews, which are set up by the record company’s enthusiastic PR guy, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), but the singer won’t play by the rules and sabotages all of them. He has pressures from home to cope with as well, from his ambitious wife Angie (Jena Malone) and older brother Terry (Derek Moran), who is mentally ill.
The 1971 setting was when Bowie’s career was at a turning point. He could have been just another one hit wonder, or he could go on to something bigger and better. We know what happened, but that doesn’t excuse the under-developed narrative, one that runs out of juice early on and resorts to rock star bio-pic clichés that we’ve all seen too often – people don’t understand his art, blah blah. Bowie comes across as either unexpectedly passive or, even more strangely, almost garrulous and the result is a film, and a central figure, that tries your patience.
It is true, however, that Bowie stayed with Oberman and his family while he was in the US and the relationship between the artist and his PR is the film’s saving grace. That’s mainly down to an energetic performance from Maron, the only one on screen who seems able to handle the frequently heavy handed dialogue. Their “tour” – PR jargon for a road trip – has some genuinely funny moments, contrasting their respective careers: Bowie is on the way up, Oberman is going in the opposite direction. And when the singer tries to see Andy Warhol, there’s a perceptive scene with something to say about fame – something more than simply never meeting your heroes.
But, whichever way you look at it, Stardust is a disappointment and a frequently tedious one. What could have been a fascinating look at Bowie’s early days wanders all over the place, with your attention following right behind. The potential for something insightful is there, but it’s wasted in a film that yearns for some of the implied magic of the title.
Bio-pic, Drama |UK/USA, 2020 | Digital HD | 15 | 15 January 2021 (UK) | Vertigo Releasing | Dir. Gabriel Range | Johnny Flynn, Marc Maron, Jenna Malone, Terry Moran.