Review: ‘Stardust’ (2020), starring Johnny Flynn, Jena Malone and Marc Maron

December 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Aaron Poole and Johnny Flynn in “Stardust” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Stardust” (2020)

Directed by Gabriel Range

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1971, in England and various parts of the United States, the drama “Stardust” features an all-white cast of characters in a fictional interpretation of David Bowie and his early career.

Culture Clash: Bowie goes on a promotional tour of America and is frustrated by getting a mostly confused reaction or lack of interest from the music industry and music consumers.

Culture Audience: “Stardust” tries to appeal to Bowie fans, but the movie is a sloppily made bore that’s an insult to Bowie’s legacy.

Johnny Flynn and Marc Maron in “Stardust” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

British rock star David Bowie was a fascinating, vibrant and legendary artist. But you’d never know it by how the dreadfully dull and shoddy film “Stardust” tries to tarnish his legacy by portraying Bowie in 1971 as a petulant hack who cared more about looking like a moody artist than actually creating any art. You don’t have to be a Bowie fan to know that his creativity was perhaps his most-admired trait as an artist. “Stardust” looks like the filmmakers cared more about replicating Bowie’s crooked teeth than making a reasonably good movie.

Needless to say, Bowie’s family/estate had nothing to do with this embarrassing mess of a film. Bowie, who died of cancer in 2016, never wanted to write a memoir or have a movie made about his life. But “Stardust” writer/director Gabriel Range clearly didn’t respect that wish and wanted a cash grab of a movie while trying to boost his career as a filmmaker. The result is an insulting film that blatantly uses the famous name of a very talented artist and warps the artist’s story by making the artist look very untalented.

To make matters worse, Range gave this statement in the “Stardust” production notes: “I’ve been fascinated by Bowie ever since I was a kid. I bought every record, read every interview, every biography.” Really? Based on the way that “Stardust” turned out, it looks like Range forgot everything he heard and read about Bowie and replaced it with this delusional story: Bowie is a wannabe rock star who has a creative breakthrough only when he rips off an idea in a therapy session while visiting his schizophrenic brother in a psychiatric institution.

Until “Stardust” gets to this ludicrously bad plot development near the end of the film, it’s a sluggish and often-idiotic slog that makes the movie’s sex, drugs and rock’n’roll clichés look like pathetic posturing by woefully miscast actors. The casting in this movie is simply atrocious, with actors in their 30s and 40s portraying people who were supposed to be in their 20s at the time this story takes place in 1971. Bowie, his band mates, his wife Angie, and Bowie’s good friend Marc Bolan (the lead singer of T. Rex) are among the characters who are cast with age-inappropriate actors who seem to be doing parodies of the real people.

The only actor who actually comes close to looking and sounding like an authentic showbiz person from this time period is Marc Maron. He portrays a smarmy American publicist named Ron Oberman, who works for Mercury Records (Bowie’s record label at the time) and volunteers to chaperone Bowie during Bowie’s disastrous 1971 tour of America. This tour takes up about 80% of the movie.

Ron was a real person, but he never did this type of road trip with Bowie in real life. Because Ron wasn’t famous, most people in the general public won’t know how accurately the movie portrays his personality. However, Maron at least realistically depicts how publicists in the music business often act when they’re desperate to get media coverage for an artist whose most recent album is considered a flop.

Although there’s a disclaimer in the beginning of “Stardust” that says, “What follows is (mostly) fictional,” it’s a moronic statement. That’s because the filmmakers didn’t change real-life people’s names, album titles, song titles and other major identifiers about Bowie’s life in this story. A more accurate statement would have been: “What follows is (mostly) a ripoff of Bowie’s life and legacy.”

British actor Johnny Flynn portrays David Bowie (whose birth surname was Jones) in “Stardust.” Flynn has the misfortune of being stuck in the aforementioned crooked teeth (the movie’s most accurate replication from Bowie’s life) and in cheap-looking wigs. Flynn tries and mostly fails at capturing the charismatic and mysterious essence of Bowie. (For the purposes of this review, the Bowie character in the movie will be identified as David, while the real-life Bowie will be referred to as Bowie.)

In real life, Bowie had an elegant, otherworldly aura about him, while Flynn depicts Bowie as a pouty and confused dandy who looks like he’s a rejected extra who wandered off of the set of filmmaker Todd Haynes’ 1998 Bowie-inspired drama “Velvet Goldmine,” which was also set in the 1970s. There are moments when Flynn attempts to portray Bowie as a misunderstood, tortured soul. But the acting is too affected and too mired in insufferably inane dialogue.

Flynn does his own singing in “Stardust,” which obviously couldn’t get the rights to any of Bowie’s original studio recordings or any songs written by Bowie. Instead, viewers get snippets of third-rate performances of Flynn as David on stage, singing cover versions of other artists’ songs, such as Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” and Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and “My Death.” There’s also a performance of “Good Ol’ Jane,” an original song written by Flynn that sounds like a wannabe Velvet Underground tune.

And this is very much a solo tour. Bowie’s band members, including guitarist Mick Ronson (played by Aaron Poole), are not on this trip. And therefore, the band members are barely in the movie.

In the beginning of “Stardust” (which mainly takes place in 1971, but jumps back and forth in time with David’s flashbacks), David arrives at an airport in Washington, D.C., and immediately stands out as a “freak” because he’s very androgynous-looking. As customs officials go through David’s luggage and see that he has feminine-looking clothes in his suitcase, one of the officials holds up a dress and looks at it with a mixture of curiosity and disgust.

David says pretentiously, “It’s a man’s dress. It’s by Michael Fish. He invented the kipper tie.” The customs official could care less. Later on, David is asked during an interview in the customs area if he is gay (David is advised to answer no, so he says no) or has any mental illnesses. This question about mental illness triggers a series of flashbacks to David spending time with his older half-brother Terry Burns (played by Derek Moran), who was diagnosed as schizophrenic and spent time in a psychiatric institution, as did the real Terry Burns.

Through these various flashbacks, viewers see that Terry, who’s about 10 years older than David, was David’s greatest inspiration when he was growing up. Terry was the first person to introduce David to music. And the movie pushes a narrative that David’s “The Man Who Sold the World” album (released in the U.S. in November 1970 and in the U.K. in April 1971) was largely inspired by David’s fears that he might inherit his family’s history of mental illness, since David’s maternal aunts and maternal grandmother were also schizophrenic. The album track “All the Madmen” was supposed to be about Terry and David’s relationship, according to this movie.

“The Man Who Sold the World” album wasn’t the big hit that David had with his 1969 self-titled second album, which yielded his breakthrough single “Space Oddity.” In the movie, David is seen having several tense meetings about his career, because he’s in danger of being considered a one-hit wonder, and there’s talk that Mercury Records might drop him.

In England, David’s manager Tony Defries (played by Julian Richings) and David’s wife Angie (played by Jena Malone) lecture David on what they think is best for his career. (In real life, Bowie’s manager at the time was Tony DeVries.) Tony tells David that “The Man Who Sold the World” album is considered “too dark and weird for the Yanks.” Tony mentions to David that publicist Ron Oberman is supposedly the only person at Mercury Records who cares about David.

Angie is an American, but she puts on airs with a fake accent where she tries to sound British. During the tour, she’s pregnant at the Bowies’ home in England, although the movie never shows her giving birth in May 1971 to David and Angie’s son, who was then known as Zowie Bowie, but he now goes by the name Duncan Jones. In the movie, not once does David show any concern for his unborn child. David doesn’t even mention his child. It’s simply horrendous how the movie makes him look like a cold, uncaring father, when in reality (by all accounts) he was a more nurturing parent to Duncan/Zowie than Angie was.

In real life, David and Angie Bowie were very open about being bisexual swingers, which is depicted in the movie as Angie reacting this way when a young woman attempts to seduce David at a party, with Angie nearby. Angie says haughtily to this would-be mistress: “If you want him, you have to go through me.” Angie then gives the woman a passionate kiss on the mouth and tells her that she can join her and David in the bedroom later. T. Rex singer Bolan (played by James Cade) makes a cameo at this party by giving a badly written speech about the joys of taking LSD, as if he’s trying to be the next Timothy Leary.

Angie is depicted as someone who loved to tell people that she and David had an unconventional marriage. But in this movie, she falls into a very conventional “wife of a musician” stereotype of being a nagging shrew who complains that David doesn’t pay more attention to her when he’s away on tour. She also fancies herself as a wheeler dealer who can take control of certain aspects of David’s career, even though the movie doesn’t show her actually doing anything business-minded, except trying to get Ron fired because David’s career in America isn’t going as well as she hopes it will.

During the road trip with Ron in America, David gets a rude awakening when he thinks he’s going to be treated like a star. Instead, he’s mostly treated like an oddball nobody. Rather than staying at a five-star hotel as he expected when he first arrives in America, David stays at the house of Ron’s parents until David and Ron begin their road trip, with Ron doing the driving. Ron is middle-aged and divorced with no kids. It’s implied that Ron still lives with his parents.

Ron thinks David is a genius and tells him that repeatedly. This fast-talking publicist is convinced that he can persuade people into believing the same way about David. However, based on the things that people in the music industry say to Ron and how he’s treated, Ron doesn’t get much respect because his career has gone nowhere and he’s considered kind of a joke.

David’s management in England botched the immigration paperwork, so David doesn’t find out until he arrives in America that he doesn’t have a work visa to perform music during this visit. In other words, the “Stardust” filmmakers couldn’t get the rights to Bowie’s music so they had to think of a reason in the plot to explain why Bowie’s original songs aren’t in the movie. Despite David being told that he can’t perform any of his music on the tour, the movie still shows David performing anyway. Ron books David at a hotel convention for vacuum salespeople, and a humiliated David performs in a hotel bar to a very straight-laced crowd that largely ignores him.

Ron arranges interviews with David and influential people in the media, but David grows increasingly difficult and deliberately sabotages the interviews. An interview with a magazine journalist named Tom Classon (played by Ryan Blakeley) only happens after Ron pathetically begs Tom to interview David. Tom doesn’t like “The Man Who Sold the World” album, but only agrees to interview David to get Ron to stop pestering him about it. During the interview, David acts weird and standoffish and then does part of his pantomime act. And Tom literally laughs as he abruptly ends the interview.

At a nightclub bar after another underwhelming performance, Ron introduces David to Jeanie Richards (played by Annie Briggs), a music writer for a major publication called Skyline. But instead of having a conversation with her, as Ron is expecting, David decides to hang out with another woman he met that night whose pickup line was: “Do you want to do some coke with me?” David and this random woman then do cocaine and have sex in a back room while Jeanie waits at the bar for David to come back to talk to her. He never does.

And at a radio station in the Midwest, Ron tells David that the radio station has a wholesome reputation, so he asks David to keep the interview “clean.” But David alienates the DJ (played by David Huband) by giving bizarre and raunchy answers in the interview. The DJ suddenly ends the interview and changes David’s record to play something else.

After Ron and David leave the radio station, Ron predictably gets angry at David for ruining the interview. They argue and David shouts: “I feel like I’m in a carnival sideshow—without the carnival … I came here to be a star!”

David’s entitlement is completely obnoxious because he wants to be a star, but he doesn’t want to do any real work, and he’s disrespectful to people who are trying to help him in his career. Needless to say, the movie never shows David as a true songwriter. And aside from a scene where Ron and David gush to each other about artists who made a big impact on them (The Stooges for Ron, Vince Taylor for David), the relationship between Ron and David is mostly joyless to watch.

When Ron first met David, he promised David that he would eventually get David on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. And so, there’s a time-wasting subplot about how David and Ron try to get a meeting with a high-ranking Rolling Stone editor named John Mickelson (played by Richard Clarkin), who doesn’t wait around for them when David and Ron are very late (more than an hour) for a scheduled appointment at a hotel in New York City. Ron finds out that John will be in Los Angeles, so Ron and David make a cross-country trip to try to meet up with John again.

“Stardust” has some very dumb and pointless scenes that seem concocted just to name drop Andy Warhol and Lou Reed in the movie. While in New York City, David goes to a party, where he meets Warhol (who’s never seen in the film) and leaves the party in an angry huff because he feels like Warhol disrespected him and used David for footage in a tacky short film. What did David do in this short film? Pantomime, of course.

The “Stardust” reference to former Velvet Underground singer Reed is even sillier. While Ron and David are still in New York City, they go to a Velvet Underground show at a nightclub. The band is performing on stage, but the movie doesn’t even have any music resembling the Velvet Underground in this scene.

The scene then shows Ron and David walking on the street after the performance, with David talking excitedly about how much he admires Lou Reed and how much he enjoyed talking to Lou after the show. Ron tells David that Lou actually left the Velvet Underground a few months earlier, and the singer whom David was talking to was actually Lou’s replacement Doug Yule. David then says he doesn’t care because the guy he was talking to was interesting anyway.

During this entire movie, David keeps having flashbacks to good and bad memories of his older brother Terry. And as David does more cocaine, he becomes increasingly paranoid that he’s going to be stricken with a mental illness. In one of the flashbacks, David overhears his parents Mrs. and Mrs. Jones (played by Geoffrey McGivern and Olivia Carruthers) saying that they think Terry is a lost cause, but they’re relieved that David doesn’t seem to have the “family curse” of schizophrenia.

After David’s U.S. tour ends and he comes back to England feeling disillusioned about his stalled career, David visits a psychiatric institution where Terry has been living. David watches a group therapy session where the patients are doing “drama therapy,” which is explained as working out emotional problems by pretending to be someone else. It’s here that David has a silent “a-ha” moment and it’s where the movie basically tells the audience that this is why the real-life Bowie constantly reinvented himself with different personas.

The movie ends with David unveiling a new persona that will redefine his career: Ziggy Stardust, a red-haired alien from outer space. And he has renamed his band the Spiders From Mars. The band members, whose speaking lines are in “Stardust” for less than 10 minutes, are depicted in the movie as hating their new costumes that they’ve been given to wear on stage. And then, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars are born with their first performance.

Simply put: “Stardust” is a travesty on almost every level. Bowie was a first-rate artist. He and his legacy don’t deserve this mind-numbing trash.

IFC Films released “Stardust” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 25, 2020.

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