Review: 'Stardust' (2021) Dir. Gabriel Range
An experimental road trip-cum-biopic by Gabriel Range explores the challenges and dreams one faces when out to chase a dream against impossible odds...
English musician David Bowie (Flynn) has released his third studio album 'The Man Who Sold The World' in the winter of 1970 across America, and it's not selling well. Singles that don't chart and an identity that doesn't resonate across the Atlantic doesn't bode well for his team.
Failing to continue his success from 1969's "Space Oddity", Bowie and his wife Angie (Malone) plan a tour America to promote both himself and his music. His US publicist Ron Oberman (Maron) takes him under his wing to start the make-or-break tour.
Running into a number of issues and challenges that hamper the tour, Bowie strives forward with the music that has made him and continues to challenge how he is seen. It's not long before he toys with a new stage persona for future work; Ziggy Stardust...
Following in the footsteps of two major foot-stomping, toe-tapping musical biopics over the last two years ('Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'Rocketman'), we have what could have been another blistering Brit triumph. Sadly, the late David Bowie isn't given the treatment that Freddie Mercury or Elton John had on the silver screen. This is a story that tries to evoke the experimentation and seclusion of Bowie's early career in how it's filmed and edited, but that sucks out the pomp, rock, power and triumph you'd come to expect from the rise of Ziggy Stardust.
British director Gabriel Range has a short CV of TV dramas and feature documentaries, and on paper doesn't seem to fit to helm a big-screen biopic. But as the film seems to look and feel like a TV drama itself, then sadly it all fits into place. A very minimal cast is lead by young Brit musician and actor Johnny Flynn as Bowie and veteran American star Marc Maron as publicist Rob Oberman. The two could have had a chance to stand out in an otherwise uneventful drama if they had been surrounded by the music that made the man, but sadly it's just a soundtrack full of alternate American rock and covers performed by Flynn of songs that meant a lot to Bowie himself.
The lack of Bowie's music is the greatest crime - it confirms the divide between his estate and the film itself, leaving a feeling of imitation art over a true, celebrated biopic.
Flynn has that look of Bowie in the early 70s; the blend of his masculine and feminine sides that proved difficult for Americans to accept and identify with. It's a side less associated with Bowie for main audiences, as this story is set before the true incarnation of his flamboyance and musical confidence in the guise of Ziggy Stardust. Flynn does a decent job with the material he's given, but never gets the chance to really shine as Bowie. He doesn't get the blessing to take to stage and belt out hits like 'Rock n Roll Suicide' or 'Starman'. He looks and sounds like a blend of Bowie and Mick Jagger, sometimes struggling to really shine as the man himself. But that's not his fault, because he can act and can perform; he's just not given the right story or production to do so here.
Marc Maron does a good job as publicist and record exec Ron Oberman who helped create the niche for Bowie and his band to excel in. While unknown to many mainstream fans, Oberman is portrayed as the rock and support for Bowie in being the only one to speak his mind and push for the fame he deserves.
The two work well together, and it's interesting to see the challenges faced by both men as they aim for the same goal but have very different ways of getting to it. Knocking down pre-conceptions and barriers and finding identity is what the film is about more than staging rock concerts and writing music.
With a run time of only 1hr 40mins, there is no time given to explore what the story wants to try and do. We flit back and forward to explore the relationship between David and his brother Terry Burns, touching on mental illness and isolation. This slice of the narrative isn't given the time it needs to feel relevant, and instead is just shoe-horned in now and then to highlight moments Bowie struggles in the present and he relates it to the past.
It's a frustrating story, and a frustrating rise to fame for this incarnation of Bowie because we just want to see more of the man and how he worked to create the music and write the lyrics to many of his songs including the battles and challenges he faced in getting there. 'Stardust' takes far too long to get anywhere and repeats the same old lack of identity over and over again, portraying Bowie as a really insecure and lost soul with no glimmer of what the world will know him as. Again, this comes to having no music that audiences will connect to him or his story.
For audiences who want to remove the heart, soul and creativity that signifies David Bowie and just take an eclectic, semi-trippy road-trip journey full of mirrors and identity awareness, the this may be for you. The crux of the story arrives far too late when Oberman comments "If you can't be you, then be someone else," and it's taken nearly 90 minutes to get there before it's all over with no uplifting payoff.
It's David, but not Bowie.
A fair performance by Johnny Flynn doesn't help elevate this biopic to the standards David Bowie deserves in light of current outputs. No music, minimal heart and no celebration.
'Stardust' is a co-production between Salon Pictures and Wildling Pictures