Who is David Bowie?
Though many of us are familiar with the iconic performer and his body of work, the true soul of the charismatic enigma that became Ziggy Stardust largely remains mysterious to the general public. Known for his unique style and poetic lyrics, Bowie carved out his own place within the music scene of the 70s and 80s, using creative expression as a weapon to challenge social norms.
But that still doesn’t answer the question.
In his new film Stardust, director Gabriel Range delves into the mind of the legend in an effort to understand his musical genius. Set in 1971, Stardust explores the challenges of a young David Bowie (Johnny Flynn) as he attempts to break into the US music scene. Travelling with his US manager, Rob Oberman (Marc Maron), Bowie experiences culture shock as he travels through America’s more puritanical culture while wrestling with his own insecurities about fame and mental health. As a result of his trip, Bowie would emerge as one of his most well-known incarnations, Ziggy Stardust.
Unfortunately, Stardust is a film with lofty ambitions that doesn’t fully make it into outer space. A blend of the fantastical whimsy of Rocketman and the more realistic (but playful) look at history of Bohemian Rhapsody, Stardust never completely embraces either style and feels as though it’s treading much of the same ground. Instead, the script suffers from the lack of cohesion and the film never manages to float in the peculiar way that one would expect from any Bowie narrative.
Even so, the film can be engaging, primarily due to solid performances by its cast. Anchoring the film with their relationship, Flynn and Maron have genuine chemistry onscreen together. Portraying Oberman with an ornery likeability, Maron provides the film with a much-needed energy and enthusiasm that balances out Flynn’s quieter portrayal of Bowie. While Bowie may be the spark, Stardust wants you to believe that Oberman is the kindling that keeps the fire going. As the two men attempt to bring out the best in each other, the relationship between them grounds the film and provides the foundation for some intriguing moments together.
By focusing on Bowie’s initial failure to break into the American market, Range has selected a unique period in the iconic singer’s career where he appears to be caught between the now/not yet. Though he had enjoyed success with his debut album, this particular moment finds Bowie frustrated that others do not seem to understand or embrace his musical exploration of madness. However, at the same time, this period of struggle in his life becomes necessary to give birth to Ziggy Stardust shortly thereafter. As a result, Stardust seeks to highlight this segment as his life as the watershed moment for Bowie, languishing in an identity crisis before he ultimately re-emerges as his most iconic incarnation.
Having said this, identity becomes a central theme within Stardust as the young musician struggles to fully embrace himself (and his inner demons). In a fascinating contradiction, Bowie embraces his sexuality and bizarre personality yet dreads the creeping history of mental illness that afflicts his family. At the same time, Bowie is also constantly reminded that his European expression of sexuality is unwelcome in the more traditional United States, leaving him to further question his value and persona.
By creating a new public image, Bowie seemed finally able to both discover his true self and embrace the madness that he feared so deeply. (“If you don’t know who you are, be someone else,” Oberman counsels.) However, in doing so, Stardustmay be admitting its greatest truth: that no one—potentially even Bowie himself—really understood who the musician truly was. Strangely, underneath the ‘space alien’ persona, Bowie never seems more at peace with himself yet he also never seems more distant.
Who is David Bowie? While Range may not have the answer, Stardust certainly wants to lean into the question itself. In this way, there’s an ambition to the film that is both admirable and enchanting at times. Sadly, unlike Major Tom’s famed spaceship, Stardust never really knows which way to go.
Stardust is now available in theatres and on PVOD.