The year is 1971, a year before David Bowie (Flynn) achieved superstardom with “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” He’s a one hit wonder with little support from his record label and a new record languishing on the charts. “I need you to give me a song I can sell,” says manager Tony Defries (Julian Richings). “If you can’t do that, I need you to give me a person I can sell.”
Sent on a low-budget promo tour of the United State, the singer arrives with a suitcase filled with stage wear—“That’s a man’s dress actually,” he tells a nosy customs official—but no work visa. “With the paperwork you have all you can do is talk,” he’s told by his American contact, Mercury Records publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) as they hop into Oberman’s wood panel station wagon and head off to try and create a buzz for an obscure artist who thinks of himself as filling “the gap between Elvis and Dylan.”
Oberman skirts the rules and finds the odd (emphasis on odd) gig for his client. In one of the film’s desperate attempts to avoid playing Bowie’s music, Oberman arranges a show at a vacuum cleaner sales conference. In front of a disinterested crowd the singer strums “Good Ol’ Jane,” a Velvet Underground sound-a-like song written for the film.
The odd couple stay the course, crisscrossing the country. Between shows, arguments and the occasional press interview Bowie formulates his breakthrough image, the androgynous glam rock star Ziggy Stardust.
“Stardust” isn’t a terrible movie but it also isn’t, as advertised, a David Bowie biopic. The first words we see on screen are “What follows is mostly fiction,” and while I realize that biographies must take liberties, I thought the movie lacked the thing that was at the core of Bowie’s life and work, and that’s originality. “Stardust” is a startlingly conventional movie about a man who was anything but. The film is a generic artist coming-of-age story with dialogue that feels borrowed from other show biz flicks—”I think you’re going to be the biggest star in America,” Oberman gushes at one point.—and music that in no way hints at the revolutionary sounds percolating in Bowie’s head. You wonder why director Gabriel Range, who co-wrote the script with Christopher Bell didn’t fictionalize the story à la “Velvet Goldmine,” and create a whole new world to explore.
With no access to Bowie’s music—the musician’s estate denied Range the rights to the tunes—“Stardust” attempts to recreate the era with covers the real Bowie performed around this time, like “I Wish You Would” by the Yardbirds and Jacques Brel’s “My Death.” This approach has worked before in films like “Backbeat,” the story of the early days of The Beatles and the Jimi Hendrix biopic “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” but here the absence of Bowie songs is deafening.