Stardust – film review

By Madeline Bocaro

© Madeline Bocaro, 2020. No part of this site may be reproduced or re-blogged in whole or in part in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.

Steering clear of biopics keeps my memories pristine, as I have experienced the  reality – absorbing every accurate historic detail about my heroes – especially of Bowie. I had not planned on seeing this film, but a link to watch for free appeared on my phone during a sleepless night.

Stardust has been denied the rights to David’s music (but luckily not Jacques Brel’s) and has gotten reviews with the headlines, Velvet Garbage and Cinematic Suicide. However, it is not as fantasmagorical as Velvet Goldmine, and not as awful as I had expected it to be. At least they had the decency to start with the disclaimer, “What follows is (mostly) fiction.”


It’s very hard to put aside the physical non-resemblance of the actors to the actual people. Marc Bolan is manly and ugly. Mick Ronson looks like an oversized member of The Sweet -and the evil look on his face when handed a gold costume to wear is hilarious! His funniest line spoken to Bowie is, “You are not an alien, man, you’re from Bromley!” Manager Tony Defries is a bit skinny and not as enigmatic as we perceive him to be. David’s wife Angie is not as striking as she really is. She also inaccurately makes out with Marc Bolan’s girl June, inviting her to a threesome with David.

However, despite the difference in his facial features, Johnny Flynn as Bowie oozes sincerity and manages to evoke a bit of David’s charm and charisma. Watching the film on my phone was probably more beneficial than on a bigger screen. Let’s face it, no human man or woman could ever resemble Bowie. In his Hunky Dory persona (long hair, bippity-bopperty hat and man’s dress) at least Flynn’s silhouette was on target.

After he uttered his initial ‘Hello’ which sounded like Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Flynn eased into Bowie’s gentle whisper. He also portrays David’s polite nature which co-existed with his determination. What is not conveyed is David’s grace and his great intelligence. He comes off as self-conscious and victimized.

The story is foremost about David’s fear of inheriting his family’s mental illness. Three of his aunts had been institutionalized, and one lobotomized. He thought that he might be next in line. This was the crux of most of his lyrics about alienation and isolation. David’s relationship with his institutionalized older half-brother Terry and visits with him at Cane Hill asylum are woven throughout the film. Whether the dialogue is accurate or not, we get a sense of the horror that David must have gone through, seeing his brother whom he idolized and who had turned him onto the greatest music – confined for having hallucinatory violent episodes.

In a compelling yet fictional scene, David meets with Terry’s doctor upon his brother’s pleading to get him released. The doctor suggests that although schizophrenia is passed on in families, it is not genetic, and that it may be triggered by traumatic rejection of children by parents. David asks, “What about audiences rejecting performers?” The doctor responds, “I don’t think there’s been a paper written on that.”

It’s heartbreaking to see Terry ‘play-acting’ in a therapy session in the asylum to Anthony Newley’s song ‘What Kind of Fool am I?’ after we had seen him earlier in the film joyfully singing along to the same song with David while driving. The film depicts one of Terry’s escapes from Cane Hill – arriving at David’s residence upon his return from America. (Terry eventually died when he escaped again in 1985 and laid himself across the railroad tracks).

The first sign of artistic license (besides some soundtrack music meant to resemble the songs ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘All the Young Dudes’ and later ‘Space Oddity’) is that we see Bowie arriving at Dulles airport in Washington D. C. wearing his Michael Fish dress (which he most likely had in his suitcase and did not wear on the airplane). He is interrogated by an immigration officer who outright asks if he is homosexual. As David famously said many times, but probably not here, “It’s a man’s dress.” It is true that he was held in custody for hours because of his unique look and his clothing.

The real star of the film is American comic Marc Maron as Ron Oberman, the stereotypical brazen and persistent American PR man from Mercury Records who hosts Bowie at his parents’ home (his mom makes schnitzel for dinner) and drives David across America on a promotional tour. (In reality, they went to a restaurant that evening). Oberman is relentlessly enthusiastic despite the fact that David does not have the proper paperwork to perform in the USA. He encourages David through countless disappointments (as if David was unaware that he was not allowed to perform, which is untrue).

I lost count of how many times Ron says, “Come on, man!” Yet, despite their bickering he sincerely likes Bowie’s current album The Man Who Sold The World and chases down journalists to interview his client and  promote his song ‘All the Madmen’ which cannot live up to his huge hit of two years prior, ‘Space Oddity’.

The dialogue between these two visually and characteristically opposing human entities is hilarious! David is unable to answer the question, “Who are you?” He is afraid to be himself. In response to Bowie’s personality crisis, Ron flippantly suggests, “Then be somebody else!” This is the most important line in the film, but to suggest that a PR guy thought of this resolution to Bowie’s entire career instead of David himself is laughable.

During interviews, David completely avoids talking about his music and breaks out into silly mime performances, shocking every reporter and midwestern DJ along the way with sexual innuendos and baffling them with obscure cultural references. PR guy is horrified, tries to corral him and finally gets David that interview in Rolling Stone. Still, Bowie famously mentions that Rock music must be tarted up like a prostitute. Though it is true that David was into drugs, he is already portrayed as a coke fiend on this trip.

It’s cool that the inspirations for the Ziggy Stardust character are mentioned; David tells Ron about Vince Taylor (who also went insane) and Ron tells David about The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. And in this fantasy, Ron also tells Bowie about the raw live antics of Iggy Pop.

One of David’s mime performances is portrayed in his infamous visit to Warhol’s factory, which notoriously fell flat. He also sees The Velvet Underground three months after Lou Reed left the band, and speaks to Doug Yule thinking that he is Lou. Yule does nothing to correct this. A case of mistaken identity prompting David to think that this might be a good career strategy.

The biggest problems are timeline mix-ups, which could have been solved by simply asking any one of the millions of Bowie fans who know the true history. David is toying with his ‘Cracked Actor’ mask from 1974 while wearing his dress for an interview in early 1971. He is wearing Kansai Yamamoto costumes, which in reality he did not acquire until over a year later. He wears a poor semblance of the shiny, quilted Space Samurai – which looks puffy and stuffed with down – and the short white silk kimono (actually worn at Ziggy’s final gig) during Ziggy’s first live appearance at Aylesbury where he was, in reality wearing a perfectly lovely Freddie Burretti suit.

Bowie’s haircut is awful – they could have asked Suzi Ronson to do it right. Old, ugly Marc Bolan is standing at the front of the stage at Aylsebury. And (because of Bowie song rights denial) he performs the Yardbirds’ 1964 version of ‘I Wish You Would’ (first recorded by Chicago blues musician and Bo Diddley band member Billy Boy Arnold in 1955). David later covered it on his 1973 album PinUps. This is especially ludicrous because at that first performance as Ziggy, David’s his own new music was what really set the crowd on fire that night at Aylesbury. Also, we have Ziggy caressing Mick Ronson’s knee rather than… well, you know!

My biggest pet peeve is the overdone lightning bolt logo which Bowie had based upon the German SS (Schutzstaffel) insignia – not upon Duffy’s toaster. Why has it been mutated with an extra appendage?

As the credits roll, we see a re-creation of the July 3, 1973 performance of ‘My Death’ at Hammersmith Odeon – Ziggy’s final gig. Although he is wearing the wrong outfit (couldn’t they have cobbled together the striped Burretti space suit?) the lighting, camera angles and colors are surprisingly correct. Then I see in the credits that the (now eighty-year-old) British cinematographer is Nic Knowland, whom I know as the director of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s film Rape (1971) despite his long list of other credits. This lends some credibility to the film which precariously sits on the verge of disaster, yet is more watchable than that horrible film about CBGB and the awful biopics about Nico and Queen!

Also see my review of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s film Rape directed by Nic Knowland is a non-profit blog created for educational and research purposes.

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4 thoughts on “Stardust – film review

  1. Excellent review – very useful to get such an informed assessment, particularly because I personally will avoid it like the plague (the less said about the CBGB film, the better – a new definition of excrutiating). I find most of the recent biopics acutely embarassing. How can one portray figures who have already established such a vivid image in hours of film and video, who we have observed closely in more hours of interviews, without coming across as a substandard imitation? The actors come across as fancy dress/drag acts – if they get mannerisms correct, it gets in the way of the performance – it’s like playing Bingo, waiting for acccurate gestures, rather than watching an actor portray a character. At least the fictionalised, stylised approach of Velvet Goldmine gave the players some breathing space in this respect, and allowed for greater artistic licence and compressing the timeline and persons involved for greater narrative clarity. But, I don’t think it’s a very good film anyway, it’s OK, a valiant effort, maybe. The movie comes off as a poor substitute for the records, which inspired the imagination, and movies of the mind greater than anything a dull, sunday afternoon TV movie approach could possibly offer. They have to ghettoise around ‘issues’ like schizophrenia and ‘explain’ what doesn’t need explaining. When u=you say what it means, it means nothing. I do not want to see which atrocious toad they have chosen to approximate Marc Bolan, your description alone appals me. There is no way anyone could be turned on to Bowie by watching this, and those of us who are well versed will find little to admire, and much to lament. Thank goodness the Bowie estate are not desperat enough to lend a seal of imlicit approval by allowing use of the music. I do think that one of the great poverties of our time is poverty of the imagination. Bowie is now famous as a ‘Star’, not a person who opens the door of the imagination, conjures a world into being we can share in – All The Young Dudes as a hymn, going to church, but a church that worships ecstasy and desire. It’s about climbing to the top of the shitheap now, which DB undoubtedly did, but the references aren’t Vince Taylors or Stardust Cowboys, but franchising, networking, brand recognition – bogus equality, pretended equality, sameness, except the infrequent novelties (quickly imitated) that break the identikit monotony and cause a spike in the sales graph. I’m under no illusions or even in opposition to the business end of showbiz – I’m talking about the fertile topsoil that nourishes it. It’s been bled dry, if I may mix my metaphors. Gee, look how much I wrote. Do apologise – it’s a nice review and got my synapses firing, like conversationally. I though it was John Mendhelsson who put the first Stooges LP in DBs hands? Though understand many people have been combined for coherence. It sounds like it might be good for a few laffs with plas after a couple of beers (anaesthetic). Also, I’m not a drugs-groupie, it’s of interest but only incidentally, but what with then painting DB as a coke-fiend at this early stage (switched of a hack-doc instantly recently when some bozo trotted out that Ziggy was the product of cocaine megalomania) – there should be some degree of accuracy because these cruds love this kind of stuff. Bowie shunned cannabis, if I recall correctly, and LSD. i don’t want to pontificate because I don’t know for certain, the impression i always got was that he may have done drugs socially but didn’t have a problem until Young Americans-Station era, when it was possibly a product of the status he had reached, an escape from the pressures of that, and the comapny he kept rather than a necessity for creative thought. Means, motive and opportunity. Iggy supposedly was the one demanding four hundred dollars of coke before festival appearance or some such. (Hope I’m not slighting him. I’m inclined to think this itslef was a kind of ‘performance’! As the ‘Wild Pig’ Iggy). It strikes me that the filmmakers have shoehorned coke in as a lazy ‘struggling artist’ cliche. And that’s the root of the problem. It’s a cliched biopic, of the sort we’ve seen thousands of times, and was hackneyed almost fromthe invention of cinema. Tobacco was Dave’s drug of choice, all the way!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Bill. I agree with every word – especially the ‘atrocious toad’ who played Marc even though you haven’t seen the film. That is an accurate description! As appalling as the characters were, it could have been worse. I was somewhat amused and was able to watch the entire thing. I usually scream out loud at the screen with rage if ever I watch biopics. But the PR guy was very funny, whether that is true or not.

      1. Marc Maron’s podcast WTF is almost a very worthwhile hour spent, as are his recent Netflix specials. He’s a soul searcher. He speaks passionately in defense of this film (which I haven’t seen), mostly on the grounds people are expecting a biopic when it’s just a glimpse of a career.

  2. Like, I wouldn’t make a federal case out of it, but I took offence that the dude from the Night Manager would play Hank Williams. And PR bullshit that ‘he learnt to play all the song, and that’s really him singing!’ Gimme artifice in the movies. let’s hear Marnie Nixon. Clint Eastwood as a ‘Honky Tonk Man’, fine. The Movies are as distinct from recording artists as they are from the theatre. I’d rather see Kirk Douglas as Vincent VanGogh than Tim Roth. They should’ve done Sid and Nancy with Rupert Everett and Madonna – it should’ve been as plastic and Hollywood as possible!

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