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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Stardust (2020)

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

Stardust follows David Bowie’s US tour of his third album The Man Who Sold the World, and how it supposedly led to him reinventing himself as the Ziggy Stardust persona. A wildly unsuccessful tour on a financial level, we are offered a chance to peer into the early days of Bowie and his tumultuous family history that in turn would help shape his legacy.

Even though Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman exhibited clichéd narrative beats and structure that plagues most music biopics, part of those films were successful thanks to strong leads and soundtracks featuring Queen and Elton John’s music. Even if the former wasn’t up to par, the licensed music adds some sort of incentive for fans to want to give it a look. Stardust not only lacks a top tier lead performance, it is also completely absent of any and all of Bowie’s music. This news was unfortunately the kiss of death and from there, it was always going to be an uphill battle to draw fans and audiences in.

Putting that aside, Stardust, in the early stages at least, tried to be different from Rocketman and Bohemian. Instead of giving us the boring tried and tested music biopic timeline we have seen in so many movies, the film takes place during the early, lesser-known days of his career rather than from ground zero. It gives us an interesting proposal as to where the film could be heading - witnessing the true birth of a mythical figure. It’s essentially a road-trip movie where we get to see interesting sides into Bowie’s mythos by scratching the surface of his tragic personal life, namely his relationship with his schizophrenic brother and Bowie fearing he would go insane just like him. On paper, it has a lot of interesting themes and insights into a figure who was and still is an enigma, but unfortunately, Stardust’s initial concept falls apart quickly as it battles to truly grasp your attention. It is frustratingly bland and it almost feels as though it is going out of its way to not think out of the box and be as wildly original as Bowie himself was.

The script begins a rapid-fire of genre tropes and clichés that are embedded within road and biopic films, but unlike movies that make use of these tropes because they work, Stardust half-asses it. The gaping holes in plot developments are hard to ignore and it makes it even more maddening that we don’t even get to see what bridges the gap from character beats to their eventual and vitally important arcs. For instance, the inevitable fight or falling out that always happens between lead characters in road trip movies will always have a way of mending these newly damaged relationships, but in Stardust’s case, it genuinely feels like scenes and moments got lost on the cutting room floor. Characters have a big falling out, but then all of a sudden they’re friends again with no real indication of where that happened. This kind of sloppiness continuously hurts the film’s chances for actually making you care, even if you know a sliver of Bowie’s history. Even though the film explores how Bowie reinvented himself to become Ziggy Stardust, we don’t really get an answer to how he got to that point. Build up and the use of flashbacks and dream-like sequences set it all up, but the significant moment that is supposed to create the leap from this Bowie to Ziggy Stardust Bowie is lost in the cosmos, not fully getting a satisfying transition to this whatsoever.

The problem with a film like Bohemian’s success is that it has created a visual blueprint going forward for a majority of music biopics. It’s almost like a Zack Snyder DCEU situation: films suffer drastically from adopting this style above all else, and like with Stardust, it follows the same palette and visual style set up by Bohemian and continued with Rocketman. This limits things going forward because every studio head is now going to use Bohemian as the begin and end-all of every single potential music biopic now. Stardust tries to adhere to the visual style and looks like it was birthed in the same lab - immediately failing to separate itself from the pack.

The truly strange and jarring casting choice of Flynn as Bowie is also baffling to me. You could argue that going with the least obvious choice for Bowie is a very Bowie move in itself, but it just doesn’t work at all here. Flynn is a good actor, 2017’s Beast is a fine example of that, but with Stardust, I get no shred of Bowie whatsoever. Performance choices in mannerisms, delivery, etc. are far too obvious to make it at all compelling and in turn, creates a performance that is devoid of any personality and originality. It doesn’t help when he looks and sounds absolutely nothing like Bowie (add a Marc Bolan casting choice in the film who also looks and sounds nothing like Bolan), but it really doesn’t help when he has an equally uninspired script, which is a far bigger sin than not getting permission to use Bowie’s music. If you cannot get permission, then why make it a Bowie pic at all? The closest thing we have gotten to a Bowie feature was Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine which at least had the spirit of the artist it was aspiring to be. It lacks the originality, imagination, ballsy artistic integrity and most of all, the personality of Bowie. Stardust isn’t even good at being a faux bowie, and it’s infuriating lack at attempting to do even that makes my head hurt.

Music biopics need to exhibit some sort of their subject’s personality to make it appealing and ultimately work. Rocketman did that well, but two music biopics of the 21st century that are unique and very obviously enamoured with their subjects, is that of Control and I’m Not There. Control was a lushly shot black and white film about Ian Curtis’s troubled life as the Joy Division frontman, and I’m Not There followed Bob Dylan in six different periods of his career played by six different actors (Cate Blanchett’s take on Dylan is particularly exceptional). These films captured the personalities and themes that were found in their music as well as their personas, while Stardust gives us shallow characterizations that lead us down an uninteresting and unsatisfying path. Even the music felt like it wasn’t even in the same star system as Bowie, and I genuinely feel the film would’ve stood a better chance at success if it completely scrapped any and all references to Bowie.

Stardust really needed to break the mould of what the sub-genre has become stuck in: a copy-paste by the numbers affair. It needed Bowie’s music as a sweetener, a more suitable and equally daring casting choice as Bowie, and most of all: it needed a concept and team behind it that would be true to Bowie’s unique and otherworldly identity. Here’s hoping someone takes the risk and resets the Bowie biopic with Tilda Swinton as the man himself in his final years. Make. It. Happen.

You can rent and/or purchase Stardust digitally on Apple iTunes.

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