In “Stardust,” a movie that dramatizes David Bowie’s road trip across America in 1971, David (Johnny Flynn), several years into his career but still, in terms of image, a bit of a leftover hippie rocker, finds himself performing at a convention of vacuum-cleaner salesmen. It seems that his manager back in England had failed to secure him a U.S. work visa. So even though he’s supposed to be touring the States, he can’t give concerts, can’t perform on television or radio. But his publicist from Mercury Records, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), has lined up press interviews and figured out how to sneak in some third-rate gigs.
“Stardust” opens with a title that says “What follows is (mostly) fiction,” and if you want to know how that rather inauspicious promise plays out, it’s there in the moment when Bowie gets up in front of the vacuum salesmen and says, “This is a song by a group I really admire.” He then launches into “Good Ol’ Jane,” which is supposed to sound like it’s by the Velvet Underground (“You got sad eyes, lonely mad eyes, Working for a dollar a day and night, white light”) but doesn’t, really.
The reason he isn’t performing a Bowie song is that there are no David Bowie songs in “Stardust.” Directed by Gabriel Range (from a script he co-wrote with Christopher Bell), it’s one of those cusp-of-fame-of-a-rock-star biopics in which necessity becomes the mother of invention, by which I mean that the film’s aesthetic is driven by a threadbare financial calculus. Namely: If you want to make a film about David Bowie and can’t afford to go after the rights to his songs, then you come up with a movie like “Stardust,” which follows Bowie during the year that Ziggy Stardust — the persona, the fashion, the music — was still germinating in his head.
You’d be surprised at how often the rock-biopic-without-the-music form has been used in recent years. It has fueled dramas about figures like Morrissey and Jeff Buckley, and in at least one case it worked spectacularly well: In “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” André Benjamin played Jimi Hendrix in 1967, during the months Hendrix spent in London before he came to prominence by blowing the world away at the Monterey Pop Festival. The film didn’t include a single Hendrix track, yet by using carefully chosen cover songs (which Hendrix, at the time, performed a lot of), it channeled his raw psychedelic energy and image-smashing mystique.
I wish “Stardust” were as good. In its way, the movie is onto something: that Bowie, two years after he struck lightning with “Space Oddity” (in 1969), had found elements of his sound but had yet to locate the revolutionary pulse of what he wanted to do. Early on, there is one of those corny but irresistible music-industry office scenes in which Tony Visconti (Brendan J. Rowland), Bowie’s manager and producer in London, explains to him why “All the Madmen,” his single off “The Man Who Sold the World,” has sunk like a stone in the U.S. “Too dark, too weird for the Yanks,” says Tony. But actually he’s being nice. In reality, “All the Madmen” lacks a killer hook; it sounds like Jethro Tull backing an overly twee glam choirboy.
The Bowie we meet, who wears his long hair under a cool Western-brimmed hat and likes to put on a beige “dress” that resembles something Liberace would have favored as one of Robin Hood’s merry men, thinks that he’s breaking boundaries, but actually he’s still playing it safe. He hasn’t gotten in touch with his inner rock diva of insanity yet. Ziggy Stardust, the stage persona that would launch him into the stratosphere, was less a character than an essence — at once an alien rocker, a pansexual rooster, and a fearless declaration of fractured identity. “Stardust” is about how he finds his way there.
But given the excitement of the subject, what a prosaic and sodden journey it is! Johnny Flynn, the British actor and musician who plays the 24-year-old Bowie, was 36 when he took on the role, and though he does a good impersonation of Bowie’s courtly melodious verbal inflections, and looks like him (sort of) when he grins, he lacks Bowie’s insolence, his sinewy decadent insinuation. There was a louche flow to David Bowie, but Flynn seems more like Viggo Mortensen in flowy hair.
As Bowie, the cultivated British ingenue, goes on the road with Ron Oberman, the coarse Jewish record-company romantic played with blustery authenticity by Marc Maron, the two drive across the heartland in Oberman’s beaten-up Ford Ranch Wagon, and “Stardust” comes to seem like a glam-rock “Green Book”…minus the subtlety (and the glam rock). Jena Malone, in an ace performance, plays Angie Bowie, who treats her open marriage to David as a rebellion against bourgeois morality, but when she speaks to him on the phone from London it’s as a Lady MacBeth-meets-Nancy-Spungen stage wife (“Now don’t fuck this up. You can’t come home until you make it”). Oberman keeps lining up interviews for David, including one with a reporter from Rolling Stone, but in each case David fumbles the interview by trying to “be himself” without knowing who, exactly, he is.
How does he come up with Ziggy? The film sketches in the elements like a recipe book: a conversation in which Ron recounts the excitement of seeing Iggy Pop onstage (David has never heard of him — say what?), Bowie’s link to Andy Warhol (who invites him to the Factory and then ignores him, a scene the film doesn’t bother to show), and the very Warholian theory David starts to develop that there’s no difference between a rock star and someone impersonating a rock star.
Bowie’s problem, as the film presents it, is that schizophrenia runs in his family, and his older brother, Terry (Derek Moran), had a psychotic break in his late 20s that still haunts David. He’s convinced that he’s next. The resonance of this theme is that once he became a star, there was a (controlled) insanity to David Bowie. (Just listen to the lyrics of “Young Americans.”) And the more he gets dragged down into the agony of what happened to his brother, the more it becomes a source of inspiration.
Or, at least, that’s the idea. When Bowie, at the end, performs his first London concert as Ziggy Stardust (wearing a Ziggy Stardust coif that, I’m sorry to say, looks like he bought it in a costume shop), we feel, for a moment, the liberation of a rock star who has found himself by leaving himself behind. The movie gives us only a small taste of it, but it’s enough to whet your appetite: for a Bowie biopic that captures this cracked actor in all his funhouse-mirror rock ‘n’ roll glory.