There’s a great David Bowie movie to be made. This should be painfully obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the late rock star’s undeniably cinematic life. However, it seems to have escaped the makers of Stardust, the Bowie biopic that was released to yawns the day before Thanksgiving. Directed by Gabriel Range and cowritten by Range and Christopher Bell, the film follows a young, pre-superstardom Bowie (played by Johnny Flynn) on his first sojourn in America as he traverses the country with his new publicist, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), and wrestles with the specter of mental illness, which runs in Bowie’s family. The premise sounds compelling—an underexplored, formative slice of the life of one rock ‘n’ roll’s great icons—but the end result is anything but. Flynn plays Bowie as a stammering, unlikable dimwit, fumbling his way through interviews, getting bullied by his wife, and generally making Oberman’s life miserable. Worse, the film commits the cardinal sin that any work about Bowie must not: It takes one of the most charismatic human beings to ever walk this planet—or any other—and makes him dreadfully boring. My brain hurts a lot.
Stardust has one other key element working against it: The film’s producers were unable to secure the rights to Bowie’s music. The results are like trying to run up that hill backwards. Instead of hearing “Space Oddity” in the opening scenes, there’s only talk of it. And when Flynn’s Bowie takes the stage to debut his Ziggy Stardust creation at the film’s climax, he does so to The Yardbird’s “I Wish You Would.” In between, there are covers of Jacques Brel and Scott Walker and a song written by Flynn meant to emulate early Bowie. (Dear reader, it does not.) Without our hero’s music, and without a strong performance at the film’s center, Stardust becomes a bit of a slog. Say what you will about Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman—two recent megahit rock biopics that weren’t without problems—but at least Queen and Elton John jukebox is a fun way to kill a few hours.
But is there a way to take these cracked actors and make some pretty things? I’ve devised a seven-point plan to fix Stardust, or at least provide a road map for anyone wanting to make a movie about the life of David Robert Jones in the future. This is admittedly a difficult undertaking without his catalog at our disposal, but we’re confident we can at least come up with the broad strokes of something more interesting. It may not blow your minds, but we think it’s all worthwhile.
Step 1: Make the Film Worthy of Being Unauthorized
Bohemian Rhapsody was famously held up for years as the surviving band members pushed to shape the narrative and make the film more family-friendly. In the end, they got their PG-13 rating at the expense of an honest portrayal of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality (and Sacha Baron Cohen’s involvement). Rocketman, an exponentially better film, didn’t necessarily sugarcoat any significant portion of Elton John’s private life, but everything that appeared on screen still had to be signed off on by the singer, who executive produced the film. Rocketman may have been a more honest movie than Bohemian Rhapsody, but one man’s version of the truth outweighed all others.
Stardust, meanwhile, was beholden to no one, Bowie or otherwise. In the run-up to its release, Flynn said this actually helped the movie. The lack of involvement from Bowie’s estate may have been somewhat liberating for the cast and crew, but it’s unclear how they used that freedom. Bowie’s fluid sexuality is briefly hinted at, but never explored; his first wife, Angie, is reduced to a one-dimensional irritant, as the film largely ignores any culpability Bowie had for the marriage’s failure. Bowie’s life was complicated, especially in the early years, but Stardust chooses not to engage with some of the more fascinating aspects of it. In the end, the “unauthorized” tag just means that instead of the famous lightning bolt symbol, we get this:
As my colleague Rob Harvilla points out, another classic rock act may have already authorized that logo.
Step 2: Find a Better-Suited Actor (or Actors)
Flynn seems to be a nice enough guy, and plenty of people enjoy his work in Lovesick and Emma. But to put it bluntly, he looks nothing like Bowie, an alien with perfect bone structure and beautifully severe good looks. Flynn, well, doesn’t quite meet those standards. At times, it’s distracting. To quote the Great British Bake Off, “That’s about as far away from David Bowie as you could get.”
That’s not to say biopics should be a game of look-alike. All can be forgiven with the right performance. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in Stardust either. Flynn plays Bowie as a self-conscious dweeb, as weak as he is unlikable. Yes, he’s portraying the artist in a strange early part of his career—before he shifted the Overton window for rock-star behavior—but Flynn never fully settles into the role. The character’s timidness often comes across as Flynn’s, as though he’s aware that he can never fill Ziggy Stardust’s bejeweled platforms.
Playing Bowie would be a daunting task for nearly any one actor, so here’s an alternate suggestion: Take the I’m Not There approach. The 2007 Bob Dylan biopic used six different actors to play the folk singer at various stages of his life. Arguably no rock star’s story lends itself to this style more than Bowie’s. At different points, he was a mime with a novelty hit, a man who fell to Earth, a coke-addled soul crooner, a musical dictator experimenting in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, a Goblin King, etc. etc. etc. What better way to capture those roles than with different people portraying them. At the very least, it could give us a chance to finally see Tilda Swinton play the Thin White Duke, if only for a few moments.
Step 3: Let Marc Maron Cook
If there’s a saving grace to Stardust, it’s Maron’s work as Ron Oberman, Bowie’s first U.S. publicist and purportedly the only man in America who believes in the young Brit. It’s the kind of role that seems custom-built for the comedian/podcaster—a slightly neurotic rock lover who’s not afraid to spew uncomfortable truths—and he does an excellent job with it, often coming across as the only actor who isn’t simply imitating someone else. And some of the most enjoyable moments of Stardust come inside Oberman’s station wagon as he and Bowie trek across the U.S. But the film spends its first two-thirds building up their relationship just to wave it away in the final act. The little resolution that the story line offers feels unearned and tacked on; by the time they embrace backstage before the infamous Ziggy performance, the film has been back in Britain for some time, far removed from the vacuum cleaner sales convention Oberman booked Bowie at earlier on.
Basing Stardust on Oberman and Bowie’s early time together and Bowie’s post–“Space Oddity” purgatory was one of Range and Bell’s truly inspired ideas. It’s a seldom-discussed real-life fish-out-of-water tale with a lot of potential, and even if that sounds a little hackneyed for a Bowie movie, delving deeper into it could’ve given Stardust an emotional center. But as it is, it feels like a decent road-trip film trapped in a meandering biopic, as out of place as Bowie in Middle America.
Step 4: Explore Bowie’s Relationship With Andy Warhol (and Marc Bolan)
About midway through Stardust, Oberman and Bowie find themselves down on their luck in New York. Bowie asks Oberman to take him to Warhol’s Factory, the famed studio where Warhol crafted some of his best work and hosted some of 1960s and ’70s most legendary art-world parties. We spend a few seconds inside the studio, never seeing Warhol’s face and only seeing Bowie perform a subdued mime act (unfortunately, a recurring bit in the film). Bowie leaves the party devastated, feeling as though he was shunned by Warhol and used only as a prop.
This moment happened in real life, just not exactly how Stardust portrays it. Bowie visited the Factory in late 1971 while on the cusp of stardom, not on that initial American trip. He had just finished recording Hunky Dory, which included the song “Andy Warhol,” and which he performed in full for his hero. Warhol reportedly didn’t know what to make of the ambiguous lyrics. (“Andy Warhol looks a scream / Hang him on my wall,” goes the chorus.) While the mime performance did indeed happen too (for what it’s worth, real-life Bowie looks much more comfortable doing it), the meeting is more notable as a glimpse of the relationship between two of the defining artistic figures of the 1970s—ones who would be linked for the rest of their lives by virtue of their stature, Bowie’s work with early Warhol disciple Lou Reed, and Bowie’s performance as Warhol in the 1996 movie Basquiat.
Likewise, T.Rex frontman Marc Bolan (played by James Cade) appears throughout Stardust, but the film gives little context to his and Bowie’s complicated history. The short version: They were frenemies before they were famous; Bolan hit big first and hired Bowie to be his opening act as, yes, a mime; Bowie’s “Lady Stardust” is reportedly about Bolan; Bowie eventually became the godfather of Bolan’s son and a constant presence in his life following Bolan’s 1977 death. But without that backstory, Bolan’s presence in the film rings hollow. At the very least, Stardust could’ve given us a scene of the two musicians as teenagers doing a terrible job painting a record exec’s office.
Step 5: Don’t Use Mental Illness As a Plot Device
The mental health of Bowie’s half-brother, Terry Burns, weighed heavily on David during the period Stardust covers. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Terry spent much of his life in Cane Hill Hospital, a psychiatric facility on the outskirts of London. The album artwork for the American pressing of The Man Who Sold the World, the project Bowie was promoting at the time, bears a drawing of Cane Hill. The Man Who also contained the song “All the Madmen,” written for Terry. Stardust is right to explore these subjects.
However, the way the film ultimately handles them—arguing that his brother’s therapy sessions and Bowie’s worries about his own mental health inspired him to create the Ziggy Stardust character—are crass, belittling, and likely factually inaccurate. (In reality, Bowie said the character was born out of his affection for William S. Burroughs, Stanley Kubrick, and Japanese Kabuki theater.) This seems like a simple thing not to mess up.
Step 6: Take the Velvet Goldmine Approach
There’s already an example of a more effective (if not necessarily great) film loosely based on David Bowie’s life that also couldn’t secure the rights to his music. Released in 1998, Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine tells the story of Brian Slade, a composite of Bowie, Bolan, and early glam-rock star Jobriath. It’s a strange film, the kind that could be made only in the late 1990s. (It’s also modeled after Citizen Kane, in case you’re looking for something to watch fresh off Mank.) It doesn’t get us any closer to the real David Bowie—in fact, Bowie threatened to sue because of the early script’s similarities to his life—but it’s become a cult classic and part of the queer cinema canon. In its own way, that feels more in line with Bowie’s legacy than a straight biopic.
Finding themselves in a similar situation with regards to the music rights, the makers of Stardust could’ve produced something loosely based on Bowie, and perhaps done something more affecting. At the very least, that would’ve spared Flynn from the unflattering comparisons.
Step 7: Don’t Forget You’re Making a Movie About David Bowie
Of everything wrong with Stardust, the most egregious offense is making Bowie seem so ordinary—there’s no hint of the magic that made him special. In life, Bowie was a confident, self-assured figure who inspired devotion. He helped usher in a new era of rock music. He wrestled with addiction and controversy; he killed off previous versions of himself time and time again. There are many reasons why he connected with younger generations in a way that, say, a Robert Plant or Mick Jagger could never. Because of the period it showcases, Stardust couldn’t capture all of that, but it could have at least shown why he came to represent so much for so many. Instead the film gives us a paint-by-numbers Bowie, ultimately making something that resembled him less than Velvet Goldmine’s glam fan fiction.
None of this is to say that making a movie about Bowie is easy: He was a complicated figure whose charisma could never be matched by the person cast to play him. Die-hards may never accept a Bowie biopic, and even the best possible version of the movie might suffer from the problems that plagued Bohemian Rhapsody, wallpapering over some of the more important parts of the story while getting caught up in mythmaking. Those sins are likely just as bad as anything Stardust does—no one was more interested in deconstructing the myth of Bowie than Bowie himself. But as the film stands, it does little for anyone: for fans, for moviegoers, and for Bowie and his legacy.
Perhaps there’s a more simple rule for a movie about David Bowie: Don’t make one unless you get the rights to his music. That’s what people will ultimately come for, and all the changes in the world won’t fix a movie without it.