In the recent years’ deluge of biopics, it was only a matter of time until David Bowie’s name would be drawn- or much rather, Ziggy Stardust’s. Director Gabriel Range attempts to capture both the essence and concept of the persona in the newly released, STARDUST (2020). While it seems that the film has fallen as modest prey to some of the same pitfalls as others within the genre, the plot however, is a brilliant concept and the design keeps up. When combined with Nic Knowland’s cinematography and the obvious passion each performer has injected into the film, STARDUST is an entertaining look into Bowie during an incredibly pivotal time in his life.
The year is 1971 and David Bowie (Johnny Flynn) has just landed in America only to learn that the tour he thought he was to be playing is impossible due to incorrect visas. Despite adversity, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) of Mercury Records escorts the young musician across the United States to play private parties and give interviews to anyone willing to listen; all the while, Bowie juggles his disappointment with his fear of succumbing to impending madness. Johnny Flynn aptly portrays the transitioning musician in scenes and onstage, with his vocal cadences and physical mannerisms incredibly reminiscent of Bowie, even if he isn’t a perfect twin. As a wistful young artist, Flynn finds a perfect scene partner in Marc Maron, who essentially seems to be playing himself- and that’s not a complaint. Anyone familiar with his work from comedy specials to his highly acclaimed podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, knows that Maron is obsessed with rock music and history. He’s got a real passion for dirty riffs and players, so the role of exhausted “tour manager” with a belief in the young Bowie is only a natural fit.
Where STARDUST falters, unfortunately, is the same as with many biopics based on musicians- the trope of the misunderstood artist has worn thin over the years. However, where the film does excel is it’s refusal to spoon-feed viewers underground rock history, and the liberties Range takes with the artist’s story. While it is widely acknowledged that this trip was one that heavily influenced the creation of Ziggy Stardust, many critics point out that he had already been experimenting with the idea of performance personas before this visit and the subsequent meeting with his brother. While history buffs may be annoyed by small “inaccuracies,” for the purpose of the film’s very real, practical need to portray Bowie’s deeper psychology, it’s needless for viewers to hang themselves up on the details. This is by no means an uncommon practice, Quentin Tarantino is a fan of spinning “fairy tales” from gruesome reality himself. What’s more, the film just looks good.
With meticulous set and costume design, and hauntingly psychedelic editing, STARDUST sets itself to the arduous task of understanding Bowie not for each of his traits or flaws, but as a collection of his traits and flaws. Throughout the film Bowie is hounded by the question, “what makes you special?” and more often than not, many of his singular traits are not unique to only him, further pushing him (and the audience) to explore this concept- the concept of “who was David Bowie?” While Range’s film, or any for that matter, cannot hope to answer the question, STARDUST is an obvious loving tribute and dares to explore the dark and the unknown- and wasn’t that the point of Bowie all along?