The focus is on a difficult year in Bowie’s life. In 1971, Davy Jones (Flynn) embarks on a doomed tour of the States, to promote The Man Who Sold the World. For various legal reasons, he’s not allowed to perform any of his songs. For so many other reasons too, he’s struggling to find his voice. Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), the middle-aged press officer schlepping Bowie around the country, senses that something’s wrong and encourages the young man to face his demons.
Director/co-writer Gabriel Range is working on a seriously low budget. Nor was he able to persuade Bowie’s family to give the film their blessing, and as a result, we don’t get to hear any of the hits. In other words, Stardust never had a hope in hell of being this year’s Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman.
But actually, that’s not why it’s frustrating. Other indie directors have approached iconic musicians via the back door, so to speak (Todd Haynes in Velvet Goldmine; John Ridley in Jimi: All Is By My Side). Grange’s take on Bowie fails because it’s simplistic, coy and, above all, dull.
Bowie, we learn, fears he’ll end up like his schizophrenic half-brother, Terry (Derek Moran). In flashbacks, we see how Terry’s passion for music triggered manic episodes and, ultimately, spells in a mental institution. Unfortunately, what could have been fascinating psycho-drama becomes an excuse for pyscho-babble. A doctor literally tells Bowie that schizophrenia is caused when an individual is rejected by their parents as a child or a teen. It’s reminiscent of Psycho’s clunky coda, where Norman’s problem is “explained”. What possessed Grange to give us more of that?
By understanding Terry, Bowie is able to understand himself. This (the film suggests) is what allows him to set Ziggy Stardust free. Surely, though, there was more to it.
There’s barely any mention of Bowie’s bisexual leanings, let alone his full-blown affair with the dancer Lindsay Kemp (we hear a lot about Bowie’s obsession with mime, but nothing about the man who inspired that obsession). It’s cool to see Bowie on stage, making love to Mick Ronson’s thigh. But this burst of taboo-busting jouissance seems to come out of nowhere.
None of the characters surrounding Bowie have credible, interior lives. Angie (Jena Malone; doing her best) is an embittered harpy. And let’s not forget Bowie’s stroppy rival, a burly bloke known as Marc Bolan (James Cade). That’s right. The tiny, delicate Bolan has been re-imagined as a kind of glam-rock Hagrid.
Flynn provides the one and only reason to keep watching, nailing Bowie’s desperation and lack of focus, along with his wilfulness and pockets of cold composure. The 37 year-old suppresses his own warmth to give us insight into a man in transit and when singing songs by Jacques Brel and/or striking a pose, is perfectly charismatic. I’ve been a fan of Flynn ever since Beast, and I have to admit I spent a lot of Stardust appreciating his loveliness.
Grange’s film is never, ever as tedious as the Morrissey biopic, England is Mine. But that’s because few things are. Given the talent of the cast, it’s a major disappointment. Biopics can either stick to the facts or be wickedly inventive. Grange serves up fiction without friction. In a word, it’s a drag.
109 mins. On digital platforms from Jan 15