The fiftysomething suburban dads looking for a Bohemian Rhapsody-esque biopic they can casually enjoy in the background of Thanksgiving festivities will probably be disappointed in Stardust. It isn’t a big jukebox musical biopic of David Bowie. In fact, due to rights issues, it doesn’t feature any of the British rock star’s original songs. In a time when most viewers seem to basically want concert films masquerading as music biopics, it’s refreshing to see a movie that forces them to actually explore the person behind the pop-culture phenomenon.
Johnny Flynn portrays Bowie as a walking contradiction — personally timid but professionally flamboyant. He seems to hide his insecurity behind colorful frocks and high heels. He’s dressed for success. But when we meet him, he’s still far from stardom.
With a warm, retro glow, the film transports us to 1971 at a crossroads in Bowie’s career. As he struggles to reach a wide audience with the album The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie seems bound to become a one-hit wonder who gave the world “Space Oddity.” But Mercury Records publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) promises to make him a shining star through an American tour. They’re kindred spirits in that Oberman isn’t skyrocketing to success, either. He arrives to pick up Bowie in his parents’ car, and rather than taking the talent to a fancy hotel, he brings him to his childhood home.
Stardust then ambles along nicely as a breezy buddy road-trip movie. Flynn and Maron create endearing odd-couple chemistry. When Bowie complains about his first gig being for “a room full of vacuum cleaner salesmen,” Maron sells the dad-joke response, “Yeah, and it really sucked.”
Many critics are arguing that it’s hard to buy Bowie as a destined star when the film never shows him come alive on stage with his own music. But Stardust stands out from most music biopics with its lack of an early cinematic moment in which David magically transforms into the Bowie we revere today. By pumping him up as a unique voice without delivering it, the film emerges as a commentary on how hype plays as large a role in the entertainment industry as any final product. Bowie plays close to the vest in terms of what he’s going to offer the music world.
Maron really shines as Oberman grows frustrated with Bowie’s stubborn mystique. He makes Oberman’s desperation for the truth our own as he watches Bowie flub one interview after another, refusing to shed light on the harsh reality to which his fantastical music holds a funhouse mirror.
The film suggests that Bowie’s songs about “madmen” came from fear of falling in line with his family’s history of mental illness. His schizophrenic half-brother, Terry Burns (Derek Moran), looms over every scene like a ghost. A particularly memorable moment finds Bowie stuck between the sterile hallway of a mental institution and the scuffed-up floor of a concert stage. Sure, this is all armchair psychology, but it’s more interesting than a montage of concert scenes.
While this intimate slice of life departs from the sprawling structure of most films in this genre, it still falls into a few biopic traps. Jena Malone’s talents are wasted in the role of Bowie’s first wife, Angie, who is reduced to the same nagging, resentful character we see far too often in films about artists venturing away from their families to find their voices.
The relationship between Bowie and Oberman is the most engaging aspect of the film. Those familiar with Maron’s podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, will get a kick out of watching Maron as Oberman grilling Bowie in the same way he pries personal anecdotes out of musicians on his show. And when Oberman mentions the Rolling Stones, Maron’s own love of the band shines through a twinkle in his eye. It’s as if the role was written for him.
Ultimately, this film from director / co-writer Gabriel Range and co-writer Christopher Bell is a flawed experiment of a film. But Bowie was something of an experiment himself, and Stardust occasionally captures his spirit.