In 1971, David Bowie was at a crossroads. His third album, The Man Who Sold the World, hadn’t been received as the star-making breakthrough he thought it would be. His wife, Angela, was getting impatient regarding his lack of fame and fortune. The singles has barely charted. It had stiffed commercially in both the U.K. and the U.S., though it was beginning to attract a little critical attention in the States. So his label, Mercury, decided to send Bowie on a promotional tour of America. He wasn’t able to play shows; he’d just be doing radio interviews and chatting with prominent rock journalists like John Mendelsohn.
His chaperone-slash-chauffeur for the trip is Ron Oberman, a publicist who is the only person who thinks Bowie is the next big thing. There was lots of drug-taking and some groupie-shtupping and ever so often a guitar was lacksadaisacally strummed, whirlwind journey across America was not what you’d call a success. But when he got back to England, the former Mr. D. Jones started working on two albums. One was Hunky Dory. The other involved an alien fronting a band known as the Spiders from Mars.
Stardust is — or maybe “aims to be” is a more accurate way of putting it — a what-if version of that road trip, wondering aloud how Bowie’s jaunt through the U.S. of A., all cryptic answers and coke snorting and shocking the squares in his Max Fish dress, helped fuel his Zigginess. (It opens in theaters and on VOD today.) No one is expecting definitive answers, though viewers might be surprised that it leaves them with so many questions: Why would any actor dare to attempt playing Bowie, especially if their name was not Tilda Swinton? Do you reward Johnny Flynn extra points for taking on such a high-degree-of-difficulty task, even as you subtract points for turning Bowie’s layered camp routine into a feyness-by-numbers bore? (He does have a nice voice.) Can you really make a Bowie biopic if you don’t have the rights to use any of his songs? Did all ’70s publicists really talk in such ridiculous you-only-need-one-believer platitudes back then? Is that what actor/stand-up/Oberman manqué Marc Maron looks like without a mustache? Just how many snippets of generic glam-sounding music can a movie pass off as a score in lieu of the real thing before a bleeding of the ears occur?
There are more: Is it a feature or a bug if a movie goes out of its way to have Bowie meeting Andy Warhol, then simply cut to the singer talking about how great he was without bothering to show him? (Considering Bowie once played this thin white duke of Pop Art, which means any actor slapping on the blonde wig would be subject to a level of metaness this film simply couldn’t handle, we’ll reluctantly go with “feature.”) Can you really say someone is “playing” T. Rex’s Marc Bolan if someone just says “what do you think, Marc Bolan?” and then the performer just says a few words and nods? is is possible to make Angie Bowie seem like more of a screeching harpy then she’s portrayed here? (Jena Malone, we love your work and you’re a national treasure, but: oof.)
And: How much blame goes to co-writers Christopher Bell and Gabriel Range for the lack of insight or nuance here, especially in those dear-god-make-it-stop sequences involving David’s mentally ill brother Terry, versus Range’s heavy-handedness as a director? How can you recreate the first Ziggy concert in 1972 at Borough Assembly Hall, Aylesbury, and fail to evoke even an ounce of the moment’s dynamism even when you have the moves down? Does Stardust exist solely to make Bohemian Rhapsody seem better by comparison? Why are we still watching this?
At one point, roughly around the movie’s halfway point, Flynn’s Bowie walks away from an encounter with Lou Reed, having regaled the frontman with his Velvet Underground superfandom. That wasn’t Reed, Maron’s Oberman tells him. That was Doug Yule — Reed left the band months ago. Bowie is undeterred. “A rock star or someone impersonating a rock star … what’s the difference?” he asks, grinning. “There’s a huge difference!” his publicist screams. And for a single, solitary second, Stardust displays a staggering amount of self-awareness. Then it blows past this double-meaning “eureka” moment and goes right back to being a community college production of stardom writ ever so small. This is what a rock & roll biopic suicide looks like. Come back, Velvet Goldmine, all is forgiven.