Movie Review – Stardust (2020)

Stardust, 2020.

Directed by Gabriel Range.
Starring Johnny Flynn, Jena Malone, Marc Maron, Anthony Flanagan, Lara Heller, Roanna Cochrane, Jorja Cadence, Brendan J. Rowland, and Olivia Carruthers.

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SYNOPSIS:

Stardust will chronicle the young David Bowie’s first visit to the US in 1971 – a trip that inspired the invention of his iconic alter ego Ziggy Stardust.

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Truth be told, I actually don’t mind that this David Bowie biopic titled Stardust wasn’t able to acquire the license to use the legendary artist’s music; 9 times out of 10 one of my gripes with these movies is how they use a band’s songs over key scenes to express a point with zero subtlety. Unless there’s a unique approach, sometimes they can feel more like concerts instead of actual narratives, and in some cases, become a concert for the finale because everything that preceded it was an embarrassment (you know which movie). However, after having seen Stardust, it needs all it can get to compensate for snooze-inducing pacing and a lack of energy.

Johnny Flynn already has some of the toughest shoes imaginable to fill portraying the eclectic star, something that’s made even more difficult by the film’s 1971 setting where David Bowie is coming off of lukewarm reception to The Man Who Sold the World and trying to solve the Rubiks cube of his own identity. If director Gabriel Range does anything right creatively, it’s definitely honing in on a pivotal point in both David Bowie’s professional career and his personal life rather than telling an unnecessary birth to death story. It’s a creative decision that also negates some of that need for the iconic music because really the goal is to effectively study David Bowie as a character. The problem is that the film feels jumbled in terms of focus, functions as a boring road trip through America for the first time doing a publicity tour, and is dead on arrival once Johnny Flynn starts speaking resembling the mannerisms of Johnny Depp in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

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That’s also not easy to write, because anyone that has seen Johnny Flynn act (he does terrific work in the underappreciated Beast from a few years back) knows it’s not the case of a bad actor getting the role, but a miscast of someone that likely is not yet ready to take on a role of this magnitude. In his defense, he does fare better during the coda showing off his newly formed Ziggy Stardust personality, complete with the signature red hair and androgynous wardrobe. That’s also the movie most David Bowie fans probably want to see, but then you run into the licensing issue. For all I know, maybe they didn’t even seek out rights to use his music because this is the story Gabriel Range and writer Christopher Bell was dead set on telling regardless.

Whatever the case may be, Stardust follows the British upstart as he leaves behind his pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone), with whom he is in a polyamorous marriage with making for a bold dynamic at the time the film doesn’t do much with, to promote his music to American audiences alongside struggling Mercury records publicist Ron Oberman (a sardonic Marc Maron simultaneously promising the world while doing what he can to light a fire under David Bowie to unleash his inner fantasies outward). Naturally, it’s a shit-show from the beginning as American record labels don’t see the appeal; Ron is given little money and due to a citizenship oversight can’t even book the singer for any real concerts. David Bowie does get to perform for a bunch of vacuum salesman, which is one of a few amusing bright spots.

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There’s also the culture clash, as small-time radio personnel doesn’t take kindly to David Bowie’s raunchy comments and label executives show disdain for his effeminate choice of fashion. As soon as he gets off the airport, he’s almost denied entry into the country under the assumption of being a homosexual, really showing how backward the times were. Basically, the film gives plenty of reason for David Bowie to be afraid of Americans. There is also a corroding marriage that feels like an afterthought (especially given its lazy resolution) and flashbacks of a schizophrenic brother that likely holds the key to the answers of questions anyone unfamiliar with David Bowie might have.

It’s not so much that Stardust is unable to pull these pieces together to make a satisfying whole, but that even individually it’s all lifeless and hollow. A reason to really be invested would have been enough to overcome Johnny Flynn’s average portrayal, but this film quickly sinks under the weight of its own ambition. Essentially, this is one Starman that’s coming crashing down to Earth, so better luck for the next lift-off on a David Bowie biopic.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]

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