Movie review: David Bowie ‘bio’ imaginatively takes creative license in telling his story
Neither “Bohemian Rhapsody” - the Freddie Mercury biopic - nor “Rocketman” - the Elton John story - had been released yet when the first press release about Johnny Flynn being cast as David Bowie in “Stardust” saw the light of day. Both of those films played around with the facts while still presenting recognizable portraits of their subjects and occurrences in their lives.
“Stardust,” a film purporting to be a kind of lead-up to Bowie creating his most celebrated character, Ziggy Stardust, doesn’t even bother with keeping things factual. It starts with a disclaimer sprawled across the screen: “What follows is (mostly) fictional.”
But even with that alert, even with great performances by Flynn and by Marc Meron as Ron Oberman, Bowie’s American publicist, and a script that spins a story that certainly could have happened, the film is being disparaged by Bowie fans and others ... before they’ve even seen it. Seems like people relying on hearsay are crying heresy.
They’ve been out there for a while. “This isn’t an accurate biography of Bowie!” “Angie (Bowie’s wife) never did that!” “No way is this how he came up with Ziggy!”
Well, they’re probably right on those counts and many others. Of course, because they didn’t know about that disclaimer, it’s probably OK to let them off the hook.
Let’s set it all straight. “Stardust” is not a biography of David Bowie. It’s a fantasy, an imagined story that cherry picks some facts from Bowie’s early days, and works them into an account of events that might have happened while on his way to becoming Ziggy Stardust.
Yes, he did go on a solo tour of America early in 1971, close to two years after “Space Oddity” (Major Tom, etc.) became a hit in England. A fallow period followed. This tour was to promote his new album, “The Man Who Sold the World.” Yes, he worked with Mercury Records publicist Ron Oberman. Yes, he had an older half-brother - Terry Burns - who battled mental illness
Did a U.S. customs agent really ask him if he was a homosexual when he got a look at his stage outfits? Did Bowie really do an acoustic performance at a Eureka Vacuum Cleaner convention? Did he and his wife Angie really have an “open” marriage? I don’t know. But those sorts of things make for some pretty entertaining drama.
What about the characterizations? Was Bowie shy, polite, and unsure of himself, but at the same time an ambitious, driven man who was determined to be a star? Absolutely, at least in the way Johnny Flynn portrays him. Was Angie a free-spirited, impatient, rude, annoying shrew? I’m not sure, but that’s how Jena Malone plays her, often overstating the part.
The film’s main strengths lie in Flynn’s even-keeled, purposely uncertain performance, and in the relationship - sometimes, affable, sometimes strained - between his Bowie and Meron’s Oberman, who tries hard, but is not very good at his job.
Its weaknesses come from moving along too slowly a few times and from there being no Bowie music in it. The filmmakers never got the OK from his estate, so they went ahead without his original songs, relying instead on Flynn doing tunes that Bowie had covered - Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and “My Death,” among them.
But it all keeps coming back to how this talented, slightly bland, struggling pop singer made the transition to superstardom. Do we get the truth? Did Bowie run into the Velvet Underground, and chat with someone he thought was Lou Reed, but was his replacement? And did that lead Bowie to say, “A rock star or somebody impersonating a rock star ... what’s the difference?” Did Bowie visit the sanitarium where his stepbrother was staying and watch him go through “drama therapy,” a practice in which you deal with psychosis by pretending to be someone else? Were those real-life incidents that led him to create an alter-ego?
I don’t know, and I don’t care. “Stardust” is an engaging, often compelling rock film, and its makers were upfront about its accuracy - or lack of it - in the opening moments. One thing’s for sure: In its closing moments, Ziggy Stardust is born.
“Stardust” opens in selected theaters and premieres on VOD on Nov. 25.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Gabriel Range and Christopher Bell; directed by Gabriel Range
With Johnny Flynn, Marc Meron, Jena Malone