So how do you make a biopic about David Bowie without the cooperation of the late singer’s family or the rights to use any of his songs? The answer, in short, is DON’T!
It’s been two years since the release of ‘Space Oddity’ and Bowie, eager for another hit, embarks on a tour of America to promote his latest album ‘The Man Who Sold the World’. Accompanying him is publicist Ron Oberman, perhaps the only employee of Bowie’s US record label who believes in the singer’s talent. The two embark on a road trip from coast to coast where, in hastily arranged engagements, Bowie performs cover versions of other artist’s songs and sabotages the few interviews Oberman manages to organise. Haunted by visions of his mentally ill brother and doubting his own sanity, Bowie finds it difficult to reveal too much of his true self or talk about the album’s psychotic themes. If only he could invent some alter-ego who could take up the charge.
In spite of itself, this film contains the germ of an idea that in more accomplished hands may have amounted to something worthwhile. Instead, Stardust’s vacuous treatment provides only a superficial look at this iconic artist. Content to mine the comical situations arising from the fish out of water scenario, it forgoes any attempt to delve into Bowie’s creativity and instead presents him as a carnival sideshow performing to a convention of vacuum cleaner salesmen. Johnny Flynn makes a valiant attempt at suggesting Bowie but is repeatedly undone by the fey dialogue he is required to deliver.
Then there is the issue of the music. As fate would have it, the promotional tour covered in this biopic provided the ideal excuse not to use any of Bowie’s songs as visa problems barred him from performing. Nevertheless, the filmmakers made the foolhardy decision that an eclectic mix of such artists as The Yardbirds, Little Richard and Anthony Newley (!) coupled with Flynn singing cover versions of Bowie’s contemporaries was better than nothing.
Though film opens with the disclaimer ‘What follows is [mostly] fiction’, some of the more dubious incidents depicted did actually occur, including Bowie’s interrogation by US Customs, and being picked up at the airport by Ron Oberman’s parents. However, the film’s central conceit of Bowie and Oberman conducting a road trip across America is pure fiction. In truth, the two met in only a few cities, to which Bowie either flew or took a train.
The fictional character of Mickelson is based on Rolling Stone journalist John Mendelsohn.
Biopic is set before Bowie’s film debut in The Man Who Fell to Earth. It does however recreate the opening few seconds of his fifteen-minute ‘home movie’ filmed at Andy Warhol’s Factory.