As rock star biopics go, this somewhat fictionalized account of David Bowie’s first trip to the U.S., before he broke big even in the UK, is encouragingly circumscribed, since it addresses only that formative period before the drugs and money did their worst (and best, for that matter). And in some ways, it feels important in the sense that Bowie at the time had yet to create any of the professional personae that made him unique in the realm of popular music. However, writer-director Gabriel Range is sorely limited by not only his budget but his lack of access to Bowie’s catalogue, and while he does get a lot of mileage out of the period production design, his portrayal of the man who would soon become Ziggy Stardust feels pale and compromised by caution.
It’s difficult to remember a time in his professional life when Bowie was insignificant, but as Range conceives it in 1971 the singer-songwriter born David Jones (Johnny Flynn) barely knew what he was as an artist. He had one solid hit in England, “Space Oddity,” but it was such a strange song that even his own record company thought of it as a one-off. Nevertheless, his management decides to send him to the states for a solo tour to see if he can get a record contract. It isn’t until he arrives that he learns he should have gotten a work visa beforehand. The local publicist who meets him at the airport, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), tells him that means he can’t play legally for money, and so Oberman books him into private parties where, it is hoped, the right industry people will show up. Performance-wise, Bowie at this point thought of himself as a mod-era Anthony Newley, a showman with a cold, arty image, but he had yet to translate this idea into something that made sense to an audience. Though he had started to explore the androgynous style that eventually defined his initial star power, musically he couldn’t put across the real appeal of his unusual songs with just his voice and an acoustic guitar, and the “shows” he played in the U.S. were mostly ignored by people who attended them.
Had Range stuck to this concept of Bowie figuring out his image under extreme duress, all the while learning about America from the voluble, earthy Oberman (the best scene is when Bowie crashes for the night at Oberman’s mother’s house), the movie could have at least been a valuable curiosity, but Range wants to psychoanalyze Bowie as well, throwing in long, involved passages related to his half-brother Terry (Derek Moran), who suffered from a mental illness that Bowie was afraid would befall him as well. Having studied theater and mime—Bowie’s show biz ambitions were, if anything, hilariously conventional—the future star cuts a flamboyant figure but without the trappings of confidence that are necessary to put it across to the average pop fan. He would leave the U.S. broken and disappointed but with a better idea of what he needed to do to break through. These are all interesting ideas to explore, but Stardust is dull, simply because it’s incomplete. Flynn is a good singer but his performance is attenuated by the fact that he can’t use any of Bowie’s songs. How can we believe he’s a genius with this kind of material? Moreover, Range tries to pump up the drama by making his wife, Angie (Jena Malone), into a harridan, a woman who only thinks about money and fame. It’s a cheap cliche, even in big budget rock biopics.
Opens Oct. 8 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).
Stardust home page in Japanese
photo (c) Copyright 2019 Salon Bowie Limited, Wild Wonderland Films LLC