Review by Sean Boelman
Gabriel Range’s Stardust has received a lot of heat from David Bowie fans for being an unauthorized biopic of the late musician, and while the limitations caused by that are evident, it still manages to be mostly passable. Ultimately, it works best as a run-of-the-mill rock movie and less so as an exploration of the life of a brilliant artist.
The film follows David Bowie as he goes on his first tour in the United States, which would come to be an experience integral to the formation of his on-stage persona. One thing that viewers will immediately notice is that the film features none of Bowie’s music, and the real reason why is that his family wouldn’t clear any of the rights. It takes some mental gymnastics for the film to justify it, but the reason it comes down to involves an incorrectly classified visa.
As such, much of the film takes the form of a series of junket interviews in which Bowie and some journalists discuss his philosophies in life and performing. It can get a bit monotonous at times, but the conversations are interesting and thoughtful enough to keep the film moving along at a mostly solid pace.
The more frustrating part of the film is the behind-the-scenes drama which feels both extremely straightforward and disappointingly underwritten. Since rights issues prevented the audience from using this film to see Bowie as a performer, one would have hoped that the film would at least provide a deeper portrait of him as a person.
Instead, the film makes the unorthodox decision of using Bowie’s publicist as the true protagonist of the film. Although Bowie’s arc of coming into his own as an artist is compelling, the omission of his musical career presents an insurmountable obstacle in an emotional sense. On the other hand, the publicist’s story is much more grounded, even if the impact is limited by his lower profile.
Johnny Flynn’s performance as Bowie is solid but lacks the nuance that elevated other recent rock biopic leading turns. It often feels like Flynn is simply doing an impression, and while he nails a lot of the personality and mannerisms, he doesn’t bring anything extra to the emotional moments. Marc Maron is a standout in his central role, but rightfully doesn’t steal the show from Flynn. Jena Malone is wasted with a small and nearly insignificant part.
The opening sequence of the film is quite beautiful and sets a strong bar for the rest of the film to meet. Unfortunately, Range is never quite able to reach those astronomical heights again, settling for a competent but safe approach which feels a bit too conventional for someone that was known for challenging taboos and preconceptions.
Filmmaker Gabriel Range managed to pick up all the pieces to make Stardust into something enjoyable despite the slew of factors working against it. It may not be the great Bowie biopic we all wanted, but it also isn’t deserving of the hostilities that have been aimed towards it.
Stardust hits theaters and VOD on November 25.