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Hooked to the Silver Screen I 19 I Stardust (2019)

When you think of early 70s Bowie, you immediately think of such classic songs as “I Wish You Would,” “Amsterdam,” “My Death” and “Don’t Bring Me Down.” No? You don’t? Well, these songs, which Bowie actually did cover (but did not write) in the early 70s were the best the makers of this movie could get. And that should have been reason enough not to make it.

Stardust is an odd extended vignette mostly about a road trip Bowie took across America while promoting The Man Who Sold the World. It’s fictionalized — Bowie is in the movie as the main character, portrayed by a singer who can act named Johnny Flynn. So no, the real David Bowie is not in this movie. Nor is his music or lyrics, nor even his album covers. Sure, there’s a lot of talk about Bowie’s actual music from the time, but we don’t hear a single original Bowie song, even when the Bowie character has the occasion to sing.

This is not the first time a filmmaker has had to deal with being unable to get the rights to Bowie’s actual music while making a movie about Bowie. The way Todd Haynes got around the problem for his movie, Velvet Goldmine, was to make his story slightly more fictionalized, change everyone’s names and have the Bowie-like character sing totally new songs. For me, that worked. Velvet Goldmine is a much better movie overall than Stardust and one of the reasons for that is its use of music.

The good news is that when Flynn does sing, he can sing. He can also act— bad acting is not the problem here. And more than that, I wanted to keep watching the movie. It moves along and I felt some emotional investment in the characters, at least the Bowie character. And yes, it’s fictionalized, so I can give the movie a pass at depicting Bowie in a way I don’t think was quite accurate.

Bowie, for about four fifths of the movie, is depicted as fearful, hesitant and confused about almost everything. He’s haunted by the specter of insanity, which had consumed his brother Terry as well as other family members. He doesn’t know how to talk about his own music, which nobody (except for one other character) recognizes to be of any quality at all. His wife, Angie, nags him from afar (and up close when they get back together)— she’s really depicted as an unpleasant, selfish person. And he’s starting to use cocaine.

One thing he’s not portrayed as here is gay. Flynn spends most of his time on screen in his “man’s dress,” and he wears eye makeup and long hair, as Bowie did for a while, but there’s nary a hint that he was bisexual, or that that was even part of his act (Bowie’s bisexuality was kind of a defining trait in Velvet Goldmine).

Stardust is less a biopic and more a road movie. In recent years I have come to realize I really like road movies, of which there’s an entire sub-genre. There’s a great one called The Way with Martin Sheen, and an obscure Canadian one called, One Week that I liked even more. Reese Witherspoon’s Wild is pretty good. There’s a bunch more, and Stardust has more in common with them than something like Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman.

In a good road movie, the protagonist works through a problem by taking a long journey. The literal journey is metaphorical. In this movie, the problem, as articulated by Bowie is, “There is no authentic me. There is only fear.” The solution— the thing he comes to realize after almost an entire film’s worth of failure, is “If you can’t be yourself, be someone else.” Shortly after Bowie’s promoter offers him that advice, the movie jumps ahead about a year (completely bypassing Hunky Dory), and Bowie is Ziggy, who we see deliver a dominating performance before a packed audience (without actually singing an original Bowie song). We don’t see the character transforming so much as we see him transformed, and the lesson is, embracing artifice is the path to success. The moral is not so much, fake it ‘til you make it as it is make it by faking it.

And… it doesn’t work. The whole thing could have worked just fine with a few Bowie songs. That and a little more attention paid to showing Bowie as an unrecognized genius. As it is, the movie kind of assumes that we all know he was a genius, even if others couldn’t see it at the time. But that raises another problem with the film’s focus on the very brief period between the release of The Man Who Sold the World and whenever he started working on Hunky Dory. Hunky Dory is the better candidate for under-appreciated-at-the-time work of staggering genius. Bowie was somewhat detached from The Man Who Sold the World, and well, I guess it doesn’t matter since we don’t get to hear any of either album.

The extent to which we can’t be exposed to Bowie’s actual artistic output extended to the two versions of The Man Who Sold the World album covers, which we get to briefly glimpse— they are similar, but distinctly different than the real album covers. At one point, a reporter asks Bowie about the lyrics to the title track, and he recites lines from the poem, “Antigonish” (“yesterday, upon the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there”). The poem served as inspiration to Bowie, but the lyrics of the song are different. It’s hard not to be distracted by these things.

So the question is, is there a story about a tiny slice of Bowie’s life that has generalized value in telling outside the context of his actual artistry? It’s an interesting question, but this movie doesn’t provide a good answer.

Good use of Bowie?
I normally raise this question about the use of the actual David Bowie as an actor in a movie, but here the question is about the use of Bowie as a character in a movie about Bowie. Its actually an interesting, nearly philosophical question— if the premise of the movie is that there was no real David Bowie, and that the performer we know to be Bowie was a character, is the Bowie in this movie as authentic as the Bowie we would have seen live in concert? Is “David Bowie” a character like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes who could be played by different actors? Should I be comparing Johnny Flynn’s performance as Bowie to that of David Jones? Actually, the more apt comparison would be to Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who portrayed the Bowie-like Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine. Despite lip-syncing throughout that movie, Meyers does a better job at capturing Bowie’s fey sensuality, arrogance and charisma. Neither Meyers nor Flynn look like Bowie in the same way Rami Malek made himself up to look like Freddie Mercury, but I found Flynn’s lack of resemblance to the actual Bowie to be another distraction. This is too bad because again, he’s a more than competent singer and he did a fine job playing a part, just not the part of any version of David Bowie I found to be familiar. Actually that’s not even fair because Flynn does his best mimicking Bowie’s stage movies as Ziggy at the end of the movie. Anyway, the movie might have done better had Flynn’s character not been named “David Bowie” at all, if he didn’t dress like Bowie and he didn’t talk about songs we never get a chance to hear. Maybe there’s the core of a story here that would have worked better if it wasn’t supposed to be about Bowie at all. So no, this wasn’t a good use of Bowie.

Rating
I’m giving it two out of four Bowies. It’s a solid two. The movie has redeeming qualities but ultimately is a misfire.
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