Following in the footsteps of Elton John and Freddie Mercury, David Bowie is the latest British rock star to be the subject of a biopic. The trailer for Stardust, starring folk singer Johnny Flynn, was released yesterday.
The film takes place during Bowie’s first tour of the US in 1971 (as you can imagine, the straight-laced squares of America do not know what to make of this kooky British guy!) and concerns the creation of Ziggy Stardust, his alter-ego and the subject of one of the best rock albums of all time.
The reaction to the trailer on social media has been mixed: anger and mockery, yes, but also disappointment.
For a start, lots of people are annoyed that the film has been made without family’s blessing. Last January, Bowie’s son Duncan Jones tweeted: “If you want to see a biopic without his music or the families blessing, thats up to the audience [sic].”
Lots of fans have also claimed that Bowie did not want a film of his life to be made, and that the project is therefore disrespectful to his memory.
As with Jimi: All Is By My Side, Andre 3000’s 2013 biopic of Jimi Hendrix, Stardust doesn’t have the rights for any of Bowie’s music. If that sounds like a disaster, don’t worry: Johnny Flynn has written a “new David Bowie” song specifically for the film.
The lack of Bowie tunes could be the film’s biggest problem. When you’re watching the trailer, it seems as though it’s constantly on the verge of exploding into a euphoric rendition of “Starman”, “Lady Stardust”, “Ziggy Stardust” or even "“Star’. But the moment of release never arrives – it’s the cinematic equivalent of edging, but less enjoyable. It also makes you wonder: why even bother to make a Bowie film if you don’t have access to his back catalogue? If you wanted to tell a story about a kooky character in the 1970s, you’d be better off making a film about a fictional Bowie-style character. Mind you, Velvet Goldmine already exists.
For what it’s worth, Johnny Flynn is a good actor (Beast, for example, is a great film), but it looks like he plays Bowie as slightly the wrong type of weirdo. Bowie might have been a strange guy, but… not like that. In the trailer, Flynn portrays him as a kind of child-like, gormless Peter Pan figure, when Bowie was always wry, sardonic and kind of aloof. The trailer appears to depict him as a hapless oddball who literally thought he was a spaceman, rather than an artist crafting a narrative and aesthetic.
The trailer was met with its fair share of mockery on social media. One waggish tweeter, writer Stan Cross, described it as “Noel Fielding 'D’Movie’.” Journalist and podcaster Gavia Baker-Whitelaw argued “on top of the horrible wigs & johnny flynn being painfully miscast, bowie is totally unsuited to a mainstream biopic format, because his success was built on being weird and untouchable, strategically creating a series of public facades”.
This last point gets to the heart of why Stardust looks so bad. At risk of sounding like your Mojo-reading dad: if you really wanted to make a film about David Bowie, maybe it could work as some kind of fictional sci-fi narrative about Aladdin Sane or Ziggy Stardust, something conceptually weird and visually interesting.
A conventional biopic was never going to work. Bowie and his work were ethereal, visionary – to depict him within the constraints of a genre so drearily earthbound feels like an insult, or at the very least a misunderstanding. “I need to be known! I need them to know me!” whines the fictional Bowie at one point in the trailer. Maybe some things are better left mysterious.