Austin Film Festival: ‘Stardust’ peers into David Bowie’s inner psyche

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Johnny Flynn as David Bowie.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Salon Pictures | Daily Texan Staff

Who really is David Bowie? “Stardust,” the latest biopic on the English entertainer, poses the question as the musician travels the road to stardom and defines himself as an artist.

Streaming as part of the Austin Film Festival and set to air later this month, Gabriel Range’s film follows Bowie (Johnny Flynn) on his journey to becoming his alter ego: Ziggy Stardust. After his studio album, “The Man Who Sold the World,” flops on American music charts, Bowie, determined to win over American audiences, travels to the states for an extensive tour. After his manager fails to get a work visa that would allow Bowie to perform, the young musician must woo audiences through radio broadcasts and a Rolling Stone interview instead. Along the way, Bowie struggles with solidifying his image as a musician.

Unlike other musician biopics, the film’s emphasis does not lie in the music. Musical montage breaks frankly do not exist, and throughout “Stardust,” only a couple of songs are played. Rather, the focus of the film remains on Bowie’s inner psyche and his interactions with American press. It’s a raw and slow-paced narrative that’s an enormous contrast to the film “Rocketman,” where the music plays a crucial role in telling Elton John’s story.

Flynn’s performance of Bowie makes it hard to sympathize with the character. He comes across as a snobby musician who is trying too hard to be different from the rest, all for the sake of being an artist. He drags along a pale pink dress and speaks about getting laid on the radio in hopes of shocking audiences and catching people’s attention. However, Bowie’s egotistical and obnoxious moments don’t take away from introspective scenes where he contemplates his own sanity and his family’s history with mental illness. The film’s use of shadows enhance these mental moments. Bowie dips into pitch-black darkness time and time again, symbolizing the darkness within him. Similarly, the film plays with mirrors to catch Bowie seeing multiple versions of himself in the reflection. 

 

Bowie’s character is curbed by Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), his agent for his American audiences. Tasked with driving Bowie across state lines and booking gigs along the way, Oberman is the classic American contrast that highlights Bowie’s blunt English mannerisms. He’s the guy that knows everything about rock ‘n’ roll and adds the word “man” into every sentence, and Maron fits the part perfectly. 

Viewers looking for a movie intertwined with famous melodies from a British musician should stick to Academy Award-winning “Bohemian Rhapsody” or flashy musical “Rocketman.” “Stardust,” despite highlighting the journey after the music is already made, unfortunately fails to deliver on this promise. The film’s trailer teases Bowie’s transformation into Ziggy Stardust, famous for his flaming hair and intricate outfits. But viewers are only given a fleeting glance of Bowie exploring this new persona in the last few minutes of the film, as he introduces audiences to Ziggy for the first time. Bowie spends most of his time as, well, Bowie. He’s the star of “Stardust” — not Ziggy. Bowie’s renowned alter ego isn’t even a supporting character. He’s an afterthought in his own self-titled film. 

Rating: 3 out of 5