It’s Oscar season, and one thing is certain: it’s Oscar-bait season too.
A slew of films are inevitably thrown out in late autumn and winter in the hopes of catching the Academy’s attention at the right time, such as the dire Hillbilly Elegy (2020).
Riding on the coattails of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the Queen biopic that found success at the Oscars, comes Stardust, a tale of David Bowie’s journey across America in 1971 and his creation of his alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust. Unfortunately, a promising idea results in catastrophe, as this film stumbles at almost every hurdle, leaving its viewers bored, bewildered, and frustrated. To put it simply – Stardust should not have been made.
It’s a miracle that Stardust made it to the acting, or even screenwriting stage of production. A biopic of David Bowie should, naturally, feature his varied and brilliant discography – but catastrophically, the estate of Bowie refused the film permission to use his work at any point.
Surely this should have been the end of the project? The very idea of creating a biopic of Bowie without including a single one of his songs makes the reinstatement of the death penalty suddenly seem appealing. It’s mind-boggling that Stardust managed to continue past this hurdle, perhaps even admirable. But the film’s other failures make it very difficult to give it any benefit of the doubt.
Where to start? Characterisation in Stardust is messy. Johnny Flynn’s portrayal of Bowie himself, even in the star’s early days, lacks charisma, confidence or appeal of any kind, coming across as more obnoxious than mysterious. The depiction of Angie Bowie is a borderline smear campaign. Other members of Bowie’s circle are grotesque caricatures of the music scene, more or less unwatchable and all desperately uninteresting.
More acceptable is Marc Maron’s great depiction of Bowie’s struggling US publicist, Ron. He radiates earnest realism and good humour, at times clashing with Bowie in a way that makes the viewer wonder how a new director could have elevated their relationship and made it the beating heart of a better film.
Otherwise, it’s stumble after stumble. Dialogue is often wooden and unconvincing, especially in supposedly heartfelt scenes. The plot itself is vague and directionless – Bowie has no real goals other than “be successful”, and is otherwise led from failure to failure across America, draining any sense of urgency or focus from the story. Furthermore, Stardust awkwardly postulates that David Bowie was then inspired by his brother’s schizophrenia to create his famous alter-egos, which, while handled deftly and more sensitively than the rest of the film, stinks of revisionist history and cheesy Oscar-baiting.
In an unauthorised biopic barely 5 years after the star’s death, it was a bad decision to promote such a feeble theory that is, otherwise, generally held to be nonsense. There are the bones of a good film here, somewhere. Someone on the production clearly had an eye for cinematography, as many crucial shots are very well composed and developed.
The relationship between Bowie and his brother, Terry, had the potential to be genuinely intriguing and showed actual poignancy at times, poor dialogue notwithstanding. And of course, the ability to use David Bowie’s music would have elevated this film’s rating by a full star at least. At the end of the day, though, Stardust is in the state it’s in. It should not have been made in the first place and made too many clumsy, awkward mistakes to feel redeemable.
For any movie-goer – especially fans of David Bowie – this film is NOT recommended.
Illustration: Olivia Sharma