Disowned by the family, the new David Bowie ‘origins’ film is even worse than you might have feared.
Biopics are awkward things. Do it with the approval of those whose lives are being told – or at least their families – and you risk making a whitewashed hagiography. Do it without their approval and you risk being hamstrung, especially if your subject is a musician whose music you are forbidden from using. There are ways around this stumbling block, but you do wonder if, at some point, the makers of Stardust ever thought that the sheer disdain that David Bowie‘s family have shown for the very idea – even though the film is hardly a demolition job of Bowie – might have made them think that this was a very, very bad idea. That point might well have even come when someone sat down to watch the film rushes as it progressed, because God knows, it’s hard to think of anyone looking at this shameful mess and thinking that they’d done something good.
The story of how David Bowie became Ziggy Stardust – his transformation from awkward dress-wearing folk troubadour to glam pioneer – is here told in empty, broad strokes by actors who might not all be awful – though fuck knows, they all seem to be with the exception of Marc Macron, who is essentially channelling his character from GLOW but at least has a character. In the lead, Johnny Flynn as Bowie is frankly embarrassing – at times, he actually looks embarrassed, and who can blame him? Being asked to play Bowie might have seemed a great break, especially in the wake of Freddie Mercury and Elton John biographies, but he’s on a loser here from the start and his Bowie doesn’t just look wrong – at no point does he come even close to actually inhabiting the role and make you even momentarily think that he is Bowie – but his performance is so stilted yet smug that the character he does come across as feels like a cliched and unappealing mess, a self-absorbed social misfit looking for an identity. There’s enough evidence to show that Bowie was someone who wanted stardom from day one and was never embarrassed or uncertain about himself – his teenage interviews, his various bands and his continual reinvention even in the 1960s does not suggest an introvert misfit who will almost accidentally find his ultimate identity. In truth, Bowie’s reinvention as Ziggy Stardust was simply another attempt to break into the big time – inspired (though the film either glosses over or entirely ignores this) by the likes of Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and Marc Bolan, all of whom were plying their outrageous glam androgyny long before Bowie thought of it – rather than a moment of desperate inspiration. There’s nothing wrong with that story – the truth is actually more interesting, a tale of someone who finally found his voice after absorbing the influences of others and making it seem entirely his own – but perhaps less so if you are in thrall to the very idea of Bowie as the filmmakers here seem to be.
If Flynn’s Bowie is unconvincing, then the supporting cast is entirely disposable. Jena Malone as Angie Bowie manages the unexpected feat of being an American actress, playing an American, who can’t do an American accent. Her Angie is a weird mix of English and Australian; that her character is practically non-existent beyond being a whining harridan is ultimately neither here nor there. Derek Moran, as Bowie’s mentally ill brother Terry, channels every psychotic stereotype; and the people playing recognisable real people – Tony Visconti, the Spiders from Mars – are just awful.
Everything – I mean, absolutely everything – here is rotten. The look, the pacing, the finale with Ziggy’s first show that looks like something that only someone entirely unfamiliar with actual live shows could come up with (and has Bowie opening up with someone else’s material, the yardbirds’ I Wish You Would, of course). Gabriel Range directs with a complete lack of style and the whole thing feels depressingly flat and empty. For a film about one of the style icons of both the 1970s and 1980s, this is astonishingly lacking in style of any sort, feeling like a dull TV drama. It’s a film of bad wigs (if you think the 1971 look is bad, wait until you see him become Ziggy) and muted colours (because, of course, the 1970s were entirely brown until Bowie came along, right?), and at times almost feels as though it is knowingly satirical. But no – it’s just bad. Laughably, dreadfully, painfully bad.
it does, at least, admit at the start to being ‘mostly fictional’. ‘Mostly terrible’ feels a more valid description of this film, which is going to satisfy no one – Bowie fan, film lover or historian.
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