Note: The writer of this review watched Stardust on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
In the early part of his career, David Bowie was at different times a novelty singer, a mod, and a fey, art-schooled folkie. When he finally found himself, it was not by rejecting the phoniness of the record industry—as many stars would claim to do throughout the history of rock. Instead, he simply began writing his own roles: androgynous messiah, drug-addled rock voluptuary, purveyor of imitation soul. Claiming to be bisexual or fascist (despite negligible proof of the former and a lifetime of evidence against the latter) was part of the act. More than anyone before or since, he turned every part of the music business, from manufactured personae to overblown concert tours, into art, all while producing unbelievably catchy songs with mysterious, collage-like lyrics and a palette that mutated rapidly from album to album. During his rise to international stardom, Bowie seemed to be living in a fantasy, but then so were most of the people who bought rock albums, and in that sense he was more emotionally relatable than any guitar god.
No one except Bowie (who was, among other things, a gifted impressionist and actor) could ever play all of these parts. Mastering just one early iteration seems to be beyond the capabilities of everyone involved in Stardust, a junky biographical drama that doesn’t feature any music by Bowie or his contemporaries and stars a guy who doesn’t look or sound anything like the man. The same was also true of Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’s interpretation of the Ziggy Stardust-era rock cosmos and the rise and fall of gender-bending glam. But that film succeeded in conveying what made its stand-ins into idols. As played by actor-musician Johnny Flynn, the Halloween-costume Bowie we meet in Stardust is a miserable, charmless wannabe. Which is to say that the film fails where a single photo of this most chameleonic of music legends would succeed: It makes Bowie boring.
Despite a tongue-in-cheek opening that pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey and a disclaimer that warns that the film is “(mostly) fiction,” Stardust is a largely straightforward retelling of the events of Bowie’s first visit to the United States in 1971. This trip is generally considered to be a pivotal moment in his creative development. It was at this time that Bowie first encountered the music of Iggy Pop And The Stooges, and was introduced to such musical outsiders as the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Moondog. Among the many unimaginative liberties and shortcuts taken by the film’s director, Gabriel Range, is the decision to depict this as an origin story for The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars—rather than the LP that it actually produced, Hunky Dory, an art-pop album of occult themes and New York impressions that was written and recorded mere months after the trip.
Though Bowie had many early musical heroes, the makers of Stardust seem to have only been able to secure the rights to Anthony Newley. In the storied tradition of art, everything else has been left to the viewer’s imagination. Even the strange new world of America is fuzzy; most of the film (which was shot in Canada) consists of sparse hotels and roadsides, through which the future Thin White Duke is accompanied by his optimistic publicist, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron). It should be noted that all of the real-life characters that appear in Stardust were in their mid-to-late 20s at the time, and that the actors playing them (Flynn included) are all 15 to 30 years too old for the roles. (Sometimes more, as in the case of Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries, who was 28 at the time but is played by the 65-year-old Julian Richings.)
Stardust is awash in these kinds of off qualities. Unable to use any songs from Bowie’s catalog, Range finds a potentially intriguing alternative in having the star perform covers, all of which the real Bowie either recorded or performed live. But Flynn’s limp, warbly interpretations—most of which seem to be sung out of his range—do not suggest a world-historical talent. In fact, it’s easy to understand why this Bowie isn’t a star; his rendition of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam,” a song beloved by Bowie and by another one of his inspirations, Scott Walker, may qualify as a crime. Whether it’s due to a failure of demystification or direction, no one here seems to be having fun; the energy levels are low, the characterizations mostly limited to making sure everyone’s wigs are on the right way. It likely says something that the only variety comes from occasional despotic appearances by the star’s first wife, Angie Bowie (Jena Malone, given the unenviable task of playing someone who speaks with an uneven, fake-sounding accent in real life).
Range and his co-writer, Christopher Bell, attempt to give the movie a dramatic core by emphasizing Bowie’s relationship with his half-brother, Terry Burns (Derek Moran), who began to develop symptoms of schizophrenia around the time his younger sibling started to pursue a musical career. There is debate among biographers and Bowie gurus about the role that references to Terry’s mental illness played in the development of his songwriting. However, reducing a multifaceted artist’s body of work to a single cause has the opposite of illuminating the subject. Lacking the real-life Bowie’s music, artistry, or charisma, Stardust’s lackluster version is simply a mediocre jerk who needs roleplaying therapy to deal with his demons.
What his demons might be is presumably part of the mystique. If there’s any moment in the film that sums up its thin, unenthused depiction of its culture-changing central character, it’s the flash-forward finale. “Ladies and gentlemen, in their first performance on planet Earth, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars!” declares an announcer. The musicians take the stage in cheap costumes and launch into a bar-band performance of the Yardbirds’ version of “I Wish You Would.”