From its opening moments, Gabriel Range’s “Stardust” vows to do things a little bit differently, kicking off with both a warning and a promise: “What follows is (mostly) fiction.” The shape of it is true-ish enough: set in 1971 after the release of his “The Man Who Sold the World,” a still-struggling David Bowie (an explosive Johnny Flynn) has yet to break into the cultural consciousness. Surrounded by people who love him — and are thus convinced of his place in the pantheon of musical geniuses, even if his entree will have to wait for some future date when everyone else gets hip — Bowie is forced to swallow a bitter pill: He’s just not a star. But, of course, he is, and just needs to show the world his special brand of magic.
With the apparent freedom afforded to him by that winking announcement, it’s understandable that audiences might expect Range’s “Stardust” (written alongside newbie screenwriter Christopher Bell) to color a bit more outside the lines of the traditional rock biopic. And while there are flashes of originality in the film’s script — which quite artfully builds on Bowie’s worries with a distinctly personal edge — most of it is relatively straightforward, never as psychedelic or sophisticated as its opening shot, which finds Flynn stuck in spacesuit and unable to engage with the world around him.
The solution to Bowie’s fame problem is a classic one in the annals of rock odysseys, and one he really did undertake in the early part of his career, (mostly) fictionalized details and all. He must go to America, where the home of rock n’ roll and freedom of expression will surely recognize him as one of their own (or, at least, a Brit worthy of being appreciated). While he’s self-conscious (there are many moments of emotional pain in “Stardust,” but nothing is as heartbreaking as watching Flynn adjust his hat and hope no one noticed) and preening confidence, Bowie isn’t sold on the idea, but it’s all he’s got.
Shipped overseas, Bowie is paired up with middling publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), and there is no bigger laugh in the film than when Bowie’s team promise to team him with America’s very best publicist, as if that’s something to shout about. Maron puts a slight twist on his usual brand of churlish outsider, but this time, the comedian is armed with both a defeated attitude and a very bad wig (of note: the vast majority of the film’s wardrobe and grooming choices are period-appropriate and excellent). Billed as a public relations whiz, Ron shows up at the airport to get his charge with some terrible news. Bowie can’t actually sing on his tour, thanks to a visa screw-up, but he can talk about his work with assembled press and fans. This is both a limp idea for a film about a beloved musician and an incredibly clever one for a feature made on a budget that didn’t include licensing actual Bowie joints.
He is, of course, in the worst possible state to talk about his art and philosophy with anyone, let alone straight-laced radio DJs and a trio of rock journalists who are mostly unimpressed by him and his work (his swaggering disdain for them certainly doesn’t help). Grange and Bell’s script takes its time digging into why Bowie is at such loose ends, weaving in flashbacks to his beloved brother Terry (Derek Moran) that steadily hint at the real reasons for Bowie’s reticence to embrace his outsized personality.
Flynn is tasked with a series of tricky balances as his Bowie moves between personas and pains with a regularity that might induce whiplash without such a steady performance to guide them. The actor, most recently seen in Autumn de Wilde’s charming “Emma,” has long been on the cusp of a major breakout, and “Stardust” seems like just the ticket. It’s a graceful, winning performance at its best when Flynn is allowed to go really wild — something the film remains oddly timid about embracing as a whole. (At least Jena Malone, cast as Bowie’s first wife Angie, is regularly granted chances to rip and rage through the film, many of them to the betterment of the film.)
“Stardust” inevitably builds to a few expected twists, from Bowie and Ron’s evolving relationship to some wrenching revelations about Bowie’s family life, not quite paint-by-numbers but far too close to it for such a vibrant subject. Even the titular Stardust (Ziggy, that is) makes the briefest of appearances, offered up as a button on a biopic that’s too buttoned-up — and never as out-there as its inspiration.
“Stardust” was set to premiere in the Spotlight Narrative section at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.