Stardust: Screwed Down Hairdos, by David Bax
Speaking generally, I don’t give a lot of thought to wigs. But Gabriel Range’s David Bowie not-really-a-biopic Stardust is so replete with unnatural-looking headpieces that even I–not a wig contemplator, as established–kept looking at the actors and finding myself thinking, “I’ll bet his scalp itches.” While at least Stardust doesn’t have the overly shiny look of I Am Woman–another recent music movie–where the 1970s seem to have been created by machine, fully formed, in a spotless new factory moments before the cameras rolled, it still feels like watching people play dress-up. That falseness seeps out from the costumes and production design and informs the entire film.
Stardust dramatizes Bowie’s (Johnny Flynn) U.S. promotional tour for his third album, The Man Who Sold the World. If the people of America know Bowie at all at this time, it’s only because they know “Space Oddity” and think him a novelty act. The only true believer in the man’s talents appears to be Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), a publicist at Bowie’s label. Together they drive around the country to a series of radio interviews and private gigs while Bowie discovers in himself what will become the persona of Ziggy Stardust.
That gives Stardust some of the same DNA as Green Book, as the budding space alien sits in the back seat while slowly forming a friendship with the craggy, world-weary Oberman. That’s the movie version, at least. The real Oberman was a couple years shy of 30 when he first met Bowie. Marc Maron is Marc Maron’s age.
Range, who cowrote the screenplay with Christopher Bell, structures Bowie’s character development–the ability to become someone new and outlandish–around his memories of his half-brother’s mental illness and his worries that the same fate awaits him. These fears are intrusive and appear suddenly; Bowie opens a door in the real world and finds himself standing in his own memory. It’s the same technique used to demonstrate A.A. Milne’s post-traumatic stress in Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin. And no, it’s not a good thing that the movies Stardust keeps calling to mind are bad ones.
What will be most readily apparent to any viewer, though, is the complete lack of David Bowie songs. Range and company were not granted any rights to the late artist’s music. Usually, when a biopic is made with the full blessing of the subject’s living family, the final result is too sanitized to present anything new. So Range had an opportunity here, one that seems at first to have been seized upon based on the opening disclaimer that “What follows is (mostly) fiction” but, alas, what he’s made is so fawning that it becomes laughable how conspicuous it is about the absence of songs it plainly reveres. During an interview with a rock critic, for example, the writer quotes the lyrics to “The Man Who Sold the World” back to Bowie. Except he’s not quoting the lyrics–those rights weren’t secured–so instead he quotes William Hughes Mearns’ poem “Antigonish,” Bowie’s presumed inspiration for the song.
Trying to make this kind of adoring movie without the rights to the subject’s music is such evident folly that it’s impossible not to ask why Range didn’t just give up the ghost and abandon the project. The film tries to convince us of how important Bowie was rather than how good but, meanwhile, Flynn (also too old for the part) is stuck looking like the nervous dad roped into playing Pontius Pilate in the church passion play. Add in the juvenile naivete of imagining the rock business as evenly divided into those who are in it for the art and the suits who only care about the bottom line, man, and Stardust becomes apparent for what it is, bad fan fiction.