The movie “Stardust,” a David Bowie “origin story” of sorts that was slated to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, raises several intriguing questions:
Can a movie about a really famous person work if the actor playing that person doesn’t really look like him?
Can a movie about a famous musician work if it doesn’t actually include any of the music that made them famous?
And can a movie get to some kind of truth about its subject if it begins with the disclaimer, “What follows is (mostly) fiction?”
For better and for worse, “Stardust” grapples with those issues as it follows a 24-year-old Bowie on a promotional tour through the United States in 1971, accompanied by a long-suffering Mercury Records publicist named Ron Oberman. (With Tribeca postponed indefinitely, the film had a private “virtual premiere” for buyers and press on this week.)
Johnny Flynn plays Bowie, Marc Maron plays Oberman, and the point of director and cowriter Gabriel Range’s film is to trace the seeds of Bowie’s breakthrough character, Ziggy Stardust, on a desultory tour of the States. The publicist searched for any rock journalists or radio stations who might be interested, and the would-be star tried to figure out how to present himself without alienating or boring people.
It’s a coming-of-age story, you might say, except that the guy who comes of age starts as a shy British singer and ends up as a rock star space alien.
Did it really happen this way? Of course it did, and of course it didn’t. The Ziggy Stardust character came from a multitude of sources – Anthony Newley, British rockabilly star Vince Taylor, hapless American country singer the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, Japanese theater and design, Andy Warhol’s theories of plastic superstardom – that were no doubt percolating in Bowie’s mind in the early 1970s. To place them all in the context of one short road trip with a bedraggled publicist is awfully convenient and not terribly persuasive, though it’s hard to argue with its utility as a dramatic device.
Then again, I come at the film from a distinct perspective. In my days as a rock ‘n’ roll journalist, I saw Bowie in concert often and crossed paths and had conversations with him a number of times. I also knew Ron Oberman both on business and personal terms for many years, starting a few years after the events depicted in “Stardust.”
So when I say I never bought Johnny Flynn as Bowie or Marc Maron as Oberman, that’s not necessarily a complaint that others will have. Flynn does a good job with Bowie’s voice, both when he’s speaking and singing, and he’s got Bowie’s hair circa 1971, Bowie’s teeth (courtesy of prosthetics) and Bowie’s wardrobe. But he’s never really looks like Bowie to a convincing degree, which gets in the way of the fervor with which he throws himself into the role.
(I won’t harp on the degree to which Maron doesn’t seem like Oberman, since that’s irrelevant to the vast majority of people who’ll see the movie, except to say that the actor is exactly twice as old as Oberman was when he took Bowie on the road, 56 v. 28, and that in the couple of decades I knew him, Ron was never as flustered or disorganized as he is in the film.)
The matter of music is another tricky area for “Stardust,” which was made without the rights to use Bowie’s songs. It’s possible to succeed under those terms: John Ridley made a terrific movie about Jimi Hendrix, 2013’s “All Is by My Side,” that only showed the guitarist playing cover versions of other people’s songs, while Todd Haynes fictionalized the Bowie/Iggy Pop story in “Velvet Goldmine” by enlisting current musicians to write new Bowie-style songs.
“Stardust” uses both of those techniques, with Flynn performing some cover songs that Bowie did perform, and also doing new songs that are meant to sound like old ones. But if you see Bowie pick up a guitar on a tour where he’s promoting his new album, “The Man Who Sold the World,” you sort of want to see him perform a song from that album rather than a Jacques Brel or faux-Velvet Underground cover – and if you see him take the stage for the first time as the Ziggy Stardust character, you really want to hear him rip into a song from the “Ziggy” album.
Range catches a break by depicting a promo tour on which Bowie was forbidden from performing because of a visa problem, but it’s still disconcerting to watch the genesis of an artist when you can’t hear the art he’s making.
And that leads to the big question: Can “Stardust,” which comes at the rock icon via impersonation and fiction, still pull off a compelling origin story? Maybe it can – just as the much bigger, grander and more biopic-y “Rocketman” was all the better for making stuff up about Elton John, “Stardust” should probably get a pass for using its inventions to tell the story of a guy who specialized in his own reinvention.
The Bowie in “Stardust” isn’t the real Bowie, of course – but then, neither was Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane or the Thin White Duke.
So Gabriel Range and Johnny Flynn’s version of “David Bowie” – a guy drawing from everything around him to find a way to present himself without revealing the fear of madness that really lurks in every one of his songs – is a Bowie we can accept and be entertained by in the context of this particular story. And Flynn’s ferocious commitment to the role is something to admire, even if we’re not completely convinced.