Who are you as an artist? A space man or a mad man?
Stardust, somewhat unsurprisingly, has been met with a degree of trepidation at best, and outright opposition at worst. The film – announced in early 2019, following the success of biopics about David Bowie’s contemporaries Freddie Mercury and Elton John – inspired controversy when Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, revealed it was being made without his permission, or in turn the ability to use Bowie’s music.
That controversy was perhaps unfair. Absent the blessing and involvement of David Bowie’s estate, Stardust had a certain freedom its predecessors lacked – freedom to, potentially, be a little more daring and a little more challenging in how it depicted the late musician. After all, most of the criticisms levelled at Bohemian Rhapsody could on some level be traced back to the influence of the surviving members of Queen, and their insistence that the film tell a particular version of Freddie Mercury’s story in a particular way, with brand management prioritised ahead of any other concerns. (Arguably the same is true of the Elton John biopic Rocketman, if admittedly to a lesser extent.) Meanwhile, you only need to look to Velvet Goldmine to see an example of a genuinely great movie about Bowie made without his permission, or any of his music either; that Stardust faced similar limitations needn’t be a death knell for the film.
All of which is to say, anyway, that while Stardust is bad – obviously Stardust is bad; you knew this already – it’s bad for other reasons.
In fairness, Stardust is fairly inventive in its approach, cannily opting not to do a broad strokes biography but to focus on one particular part of Bowie’s life: a 1971 tour across America to advertise his new album where, because of a mistake in his visa, he couldn’t actually play any music. Not having access to Bowie’s discography isn’t, therefore, as much of an issue for Stardust as it could’ve been; there’s no Jackie Jormp-Jormp, Chunk of My Lung esque replacements, this isn’t about Zaddy Starlight and the Centipedes from Saturn. Instead, it plays as a travelogue, the young Bowie moving from interview to interview, justifying himself and building his public persona through conversation alone – something which, though worlds away from the crowd-pleasing excess of Bohemian Rhapsody, had the potential to be introspective and intimate.
Clever though this workaround is, Stardust doesn’t quite commit – despite the visa issues, Bowie still plays a handful of small shows, covering other people’s music to little impact. It never escapes the gravity of Bowie’s music, any song it plays drawing attention to the ones it can’t – particularly as the film builds to a conclusion akin to Live Aid in Bohemian Rhapsody, a final moment of catharsis and self-expression, where… Bowie covers someone else’s song.
There likely is a good film to be made about Bowie and how he constructed his image outside of his music, the performance that existed beyond the stage, but Stardust isn’t that film – in fact, there’s little sense that director Gabriel Range and writer Christopher Bell were equipped to interrogate the layers of artifice that went into Bowie’s performance. Efforts to contextualise Bowie’s work are so clunkily exposited they serve only to make him seem derivative; the occasional gesture towards more visually interesting cinematography feels listless; the script hews so closely to a recognisable formula that it feels drab and bland, damned by a series of flashbacks Range doesn’t seem to believe in and Bell’s habit of leaving most of Bowie’s growth and development to happen offscreen between scenes. There’s something deeply generic and anodyne about it all – it’s not just that Stardust couldn’t capture what made Bowie exciting and vital, but that Range and Bell seemingly didn’t even try.
As a result, Stardust feels superficial. The film positions itself as a character study of “David before Bowie”, of the insecurities and vulnerabilities beneath a carefully constructed persona – but each attempt to look at Bowie’s personal life beyond his music exposes something hollow at Stardust’s heart. It touches on Bowie’s history of mental health problems, and his brother’s schizophrenia – albeit only in the broadest terms, couched in cliché (“there is no authentic me, just fear and voices”) and more insensitive than insightful. The film is similarly limited in its depiction of Bowie’s personal relationships, too, with his wife Angela (Jena Malone) dropping in and out of the narrative at essentially random intervals – nowhere is it more obvious how lazily written Stardust is than in those scenes.
It’s a shame, because Johnny Flynn seems like he could’ve been a better Bowie in a better film, and Marc Maron is genuinely very funny throughout (“It was a room full of vacuum cleaner salesmen.” “Yeah, and it really sucked”). Otherwise, though, Stardust leaves little lasting impression. Had it been a film about a fictional musician, it likely would’ve been remembered as a fine if essentially unremarkable way to pass the time; as it is, with the weight of David Bowie’s own artistry looming behind it, Stardust just seems small.