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Non-Review Review: Stardust (2020)

Stardust is not just a terrible movie, it often feels like a very direct insult to its subject.

To some extent, Stardust was inevitable. The commercial and awards success of Bohemian Rhapsody had cemented the musical biopic as an organic extension of the jukebox music genre that had enjoyed popular success with Mamma Mia and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. Given that the logical extension had been to move from a Freddie-Mercury-centric biopic to an Elton-John-centric biopic with Rocketman, it seemed that iconic British musical artists from the seventies were ripe for this sort of treatment.

“But the film is a saddening bore.
For she’s lived it ten times or more.
She could spit in the eyes of fools.
As they ask her to focus on…”

David Bowie loomed large in that line-up, so a Bowie biopic seemed the next logical step. Of course, there are two fundamental problems with Stardust. The first is one of genre. Whether fairly or not, the musical biopic has a certain structure and rhythm to it. This was the case with the early iterations of the genre like Ray and Walk the Line, and it was spoofed mercilessly with Walk Hard. That formula is evident in Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, unironically reiterated. That formula has its uses, but David Bowie was an artist who defied those sorts of tropes and beats.

However, the second fundamental issue with Stardust is particular to the movie. A large part of the appeal of musical biopics is the soundtrack, with the plot often feeling like a set of hooks on which the movie might hang iconic and beloved songs. The soundtrack album is a huge part of the commercial appeal of these projects. Rocketman arguably pushed this idea to its extreme by embracing the cinematic language of the musical, but it was there in Walk the Line and Bohemian Rhapsody.

“Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth.
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then cigarette.
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget.”

With that in mind, it is notable that Stardust is effectively a jukebox musical biography without any jukebox music. The Bowie estate declined to license Bowie’s music for the film, which should have been enough to stop the project dead or at least require a major rethink of the approach to it. Without a killer Bowie soundtrack, trying to emulate Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman would be a fool’s errand. There is probably a way to tell the story of David Bowie’s life without including his music, but a formulaic musical biopic is not it.

One almost has to admire the stubbornness in committing to a format almost wholly reliant on a soundtrack that is legally unavailable to the film in question. Almost.

“Making love with his ego,
Ziggy sucked up into his mind,
Like a leper messiah.”

David Bowie is one of the defining musicians of the second half of the twentieth century and into the early twenty-first. A large part of what made Bowie unique was his distinct understanding of narratives and storytelling, in particular the sense in which fame was largely an exercise in extended performance and construction. Bowie notably build a number of elaborate personas throughout his life and career, leading many to characterise him as a chameleon or shapeshifter; Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, and so on.

Bowie was always aware of how he was seen and the importance of manipulating others’ expectations of him. He notably reinvented himself as a suited and packaged popstar for the Thatcher and Reagan eras, he became an experimental artist in the nineties, and positioned himself as a reflective elder statesman at the turn of the millennium. However, each of these personas was very sly and very calculated. After all, his most commercially successful and outwardly conventional album Let’s Dance features the subversively queer Criminal World.

“If you can see me I can see you.
I could wear your new blue shoes.
I should wear your old red dress.”

Bowie was a man who was always in control of the stories being told about him. Indeed, it’s notable that Bowie arguably managed to stage manage his own death – releasing a new album about his inevitable passing the weekend that he died. That is a unique artist. It demands a unique approach. As such, less than half a decade after Bowie’s passing, it seems almost crass to contort the artist’s life into the familiar tempo and structure of almost every other mainstream biography of a musical artist. After all, Bowie never let himself be trapped in these narratives in life.

Indeed, the refusal to license the artist’s music for Stardust has an interesting and numbing effect. Stardust employs characters who share names and broad stroke details from the musician’s life: Johnny Flynn plays David Bowie, Jena Malone plays Angie Bowie, Derek Moran plays Terry Jones Aaron Poole plays Mick Ronson. However, without the recognisable tunes, everything in Stardust takes on a generic and archetypal quality.

“Take your protein pill and put your helmet on.”

At times, Stardust does not feel so much like a David Bowie biopic, but a generic musical biopic into which an algorithm just dripped the recognisable intellectual property known as “David Bowie”, only to realise too late that it didn’t have the part of that intellectual property that anybody cared about. Indeed, there are moments when Stardust seems almost self-aware. “You’re going to have to talk America into thinking you’re a star,” Ron Oberman, his American publicist, insists, as if to confirm that the lawyers won’t allow him to sing about it.

What few aspects of the film that are tailored specifically to Bowie often feel like they have been cobbled together from a quick and clumsy read of his Wikipedia page. Stardust devotes a considerable stretch to the relationship between David and his mentally ill brother Terry, making a somewhat tenuous link between David’s transition through a variety of stage personas to Terry’s schizophrenia. It’s an incredibly trite bit of psychoanalysis, which seems to hinge on a cartoonish understanding of what schizophrenia is. (It is not multiple personality disorder.)

“Do you remember a guy that’s been
In such an early song?”

Indeed, the laziness with which Stardust is constructed is reflected in how broadly the script seems to have read the Wikipedia article in question. The film takes place in the wake of the release of The Man Who Sold the World, the album which contains the thematically-relevant-but-legally-inaccessible track All the Mad Men. The album has bombed, so Bowie has to travel to the United States and try to find himself. As the title of the film implies, Bowie’s entire arc in the film is building towards the release of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.

From a distance, this arc makes a reasonable amount of sense. After all, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is perhaps Bowie’s best-known album these days, with its reputation far outlasting that of the more commercially successful Let’s Dance. As such, the arrival of the album (and the star persona) marks a suitably triumphant end point for the story. The Man Who Sold the World is comparatively less popular, but still has some cultural cachet due to that Nirvana cover on MTV Unplugged, so it works as a low from which that journey might start.

“Poor harlequin, you’re quite an exception
Fay troubadour, on a downer
Gay harlequin, doesn’t believe in you
Doesn’t believe it’s true, such a downer.”

There is just one very obvious problem with this, which is apparent to anybody with even a casual understanding of Bowie’s musical history. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was not the album that followed The Man Who Sold the World, that was Hunky Dory. While Hunky Dory is not especially well known outside of fan circles, it does contain some of Bowie’s most beloved hits, such as Changes and Life on Mars? (Stardust seems to vaguely allude to the origins of Andy Warhol, but otherwise the movie is largely disinterested in that quirky, charming little album.)

So, with that Wikipedia summary under its arm, Stardust commits to the format so ruthlessly parodied by Walk the Line. Characters are not characters so much as archetypes. Jena Malone is playing the archetypal nightmare first wife from any music biopic. Bowie himself inevitably just needs to sit down and figure out what he actually wants so he can stop wasting the time of the people around him. Ron Oberman is the quirky outside who also believes in the central musician and inspires him to greatness.

“We passed upon the stair
We spoke of was and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend.”

Stardust is the kind of movie where characters have life-changing epiphanies while standing at a literal honest-to-goodness crossroads. Characters do not read lines so much as they reiterate core thematic points. “So, tell me about the mask,” states one interviewer, before handily explaining the themes of The Man Who Sold the World to Bowie so the audience makes it clear that Bowie does not understand himself. Another interviewer anchors the conversation by stating, “I was asking a simple question: who or what is David Bowie?”

It often feels like most of the dialogue in Stardust exists so that it can be cut into a trailer. “There is no authentic me,” Bowie actually states out loud at one point. Later on, Ron has a profound heart-to-heart with his client, “If you cant be yourself, then be someone else.” As if to underscore to the audience that this line might carry some thematic weight, Ron repeats it slowly and profoundly – less a suggestion than a proclamation. “Be… someone… else.” A psychologists proposes a model where “you discharge your psychosis by pretending to be somebody else.”

“He took it all too far
But, boy, could he play guitar.”

This is all textbook stuff – the idea of performer as performance artist, of the public persona as something that has to be invented. It was an element of both Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, both of which touched on the difference between the versions of these people who existed and the versions presented to the outside world for public consumption. Indeed, individual scenes in the movie seem to have been lifted wholesale from Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, including one early meeting with Tony DeFries that looks like Mike Myers might appear at any moment.

What few efforts Stardust makes to paper over the cracks in its foundation are superficial and half-assed. For example, there is something almost clever in the way that the film chooses to have Bowie perform covers of songs that the real artist loved – songs like Amsterdam or White Light/White Heat. While Bowie’s rendition of White Heat/White Heat may not compare to Lou Reed’s, it is virtuoso when compared to the renditions by Johnny Flynn.

“Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame
That burns your change to keep you insane.”

Asking any actor to impersonate Bowie is a tall order, particularly without access to the sort of tools that supported Rami Malek and Taron Egerton. However, Flynn flounders and flails. There’s never even a hint of Bowie’s charm and assurance, even buried beneath the obvious crisis of confidence that the film foists on top of the character. Ron keeps talking about how he sees sparks of greatness in Bowie, but Flynn offers no sense of what those sparks might be. He is just there. The film around him does not do the actor any favours, but he fails to elevate the material in anyway.

The results would be frustrating and boring in any case, but they are particularly upsetting in the context of an artist who defined himself in the construction and explosion of narratives around him. Bowie was a figure who never allowed himself to be trapped in facile narratives about stardom, instead twisting them to suit his own interests and subverting in compelling ways. Bowie was one of the most interesting storytellers of the twentieth century, and not just in his lyrics.

The musician wouldn’t be caught dead in a story this banal, formulaic and predictable – which explains why it took so long. The results are insulting, a film that tries to capture the faintest echo of one of the greatest musicians of the century, only to strip out anything remotely recognisable in it.

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