Stardust film review: David Bowie biopic ‘a godawful small affair’

Stardust (18, streaming)

Rating:

Verdict: A saddening bore

A Christmas Gift From Bob (12A, streaming)

Rating:

Verdict: A whiskery tale

With Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman having blazed a phosphorescent trail in telling the stories of suburban boys with iffy teeth who became music legends, the makers of Stardust understandably thought the time was right to add David Bowie to the list.

They hit on a great title, too, for their account of Bowie trying desperately to build on the success of his 1969 single Space Oddity by cracking America.

It not only refers to Bowie’s androgynous alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, but hints at that mysterious ingredient in the transformation from near-nobody to roaring icon. You need a sprinkling of stardust, kid, as the old movie moguls used to say.

So, nice idea, decent title. So far, so good. What could go wrong from there?

With Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman having blazed a phosphorescent trail in telling the stories of suburban boys with iffy teeth who became music legends, the makers of Stardust understandably thought the time was right to add David Bowie to the list

With Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman having blazed a phosphorescent trail in telling the stories of suburban boys with iffy teeth who became music legends, the makers of Stardust understandably thought the time was right to add David Bowie to the list

With Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman having blazed a phosphorescent trail in telling the stories of suburban boys with iffy teeth who became music legends, the makers of Stardust understandably thought the time was right to add David Bowie to the list

Well, apart from the casting, the script, the acting, the music and the wigs, hardly anything does. The cinematography is terrific. 

And the film offers welcome clarification to all those who mispronounce Bowie to rhyme with ‘wow-ee!’ or the soap opera TOWIE, and not with ‘showy’ or Zoe. But ground control to Major Tom, take your protein pills and put your helmets on, because Johnny Flynn, talented actor and singer-songwriter though he is, makes a rotten Bowie.

You need rocket-fuelled imagination to believe that this full-lipped bloke with no discernible cheekbones is the feline, aquiline young Bowie, and sticking a long, lank hairpiece on him makes the effect even funnier. Honestly, you’d laugh him out of a 70s fancy-dress party. Either that, or compliment him for coming as Diana Dors.

Speaking of cheeks, Flynn was last seen baring his backside as George Knightley in the recent big-screen adaptation of Emma. This time he bares his soul and, I have to say, I preferred his bottom.

He portrays Bowie as a tormented neurotic, insecure about his image and convinced he will eventually succumb to full-blown mental illness, like his older half-brother Terry (Derek Moran). It is a hard-working performance, but unconvincing.

The film is set mainly in 1971. While his pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone, oddly flaunting an Australian accent) is brooding in London, Bowie is on a U.S. promotional tour for his album The Man Who Sold The World. 

Anxiously chaperoned by well-meaning Mercury Records publicity man Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), he is disastrously thwarted by the lack of the visa he needs to perform.

Still, one man’s disaster is another man’s opportunity. 

The filmmakers did not obtain the rights to the original music, so all we get from Flynn’s Bowie are a few covers… of other artists’ songs.

While his pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone, oddly flaunting an Australian accent) is brooding in London, Bowie is on a U.S. promotional tour for his album The Man Who Sold The World. Anxiously chaperoned by well-meaning Mercury Records publicity man Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), he is disastrously thwarted by the lack of the visa he needs to perform

While his pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone, oddly flaunting an Australian accent) is brooding in London, Bowie is on a U.S. promotional tour for his album The Man Who Sold The World. Anxiously chaperoned by well-meaning Mercury Records publicity man Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), he is disastrously thwarted by the lack of the visa he needs to perform

While his pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone, oddly flaunting an Australian accent) is brooding in London, Bowie is on a U.S. promotional tour for his album The Man Who Sold The World. Anxiously chaperoned by well-meaning Mercury Records publicity man Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), he is disastrously thwarted by the lack of the visa he needs to perform

That needn’t in itself be an insurmountable problem. It didn’t stop Sam Taylor-Wood, as she then was, making a fine job of Nowhere Boy, her 2009 film about the young John Lennon. But here it just adds to the sense that director and co-writer Gabriel Range has plenty of the right ideas yet none of the right ingredients.

And if you don’t buy the film’s admittedly bold notion that Bowie invented Ziggy Stardust as a way of dealing with his own psychoses, advised by a psychiatrist that it might help to pretend to be someone else, then I’m afraid Stardust really is a god-awful small affair. 

Bowie’s 1981 track Cat People perfectly describes the target audience of A Christmas Gift From Bob. If moggies aren’t your thing, or if you think festive tearjerkers should generally be held back until, oh I don’t know, some date in December, then you might want to swerve this furball of a sequel to the 2016 film A Street Cat Named Bob.

The original movie was inspired by the bestselling book about recovering heroin addict James Bowen, a busker whose life was given renewed purpose by Bob, a stray ginger tom.

Here, Luke Treadaway again plays James, with Bob giving a copycat performance as himself… although there’s a heart-tugging postscript, as he was fatally hit by a car after filming was completed.

A more upbeat detail is that the director, Charles Martin Smith, played the goofily hapless Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields in one of my favourite films, American Graffiti.

In idle moments he must marvel at a career that has taken him from that 1973 George Lucas classic to the further misadventures of James and Bob on the mean streets of London, clumsily presented here as a series of plot contrivances which end with Animal Welfare officers threatening to separate the devoted pals just in time — hey, you’ve guessed! — for Christmas.

Stardust, followed by a live Q&A with Johnny Flynn, is available to stream via the Raindance Player from 5.30pm today. 

Visit cinema.raindance.org/film/stardust to register (seats limited). A Christmas Gift From Bob is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Virgin.

Voices of unreason and a troubled teen journey

Words On Bathroom Walls (12A, cinemas)

Rating:

Verdict: Sensitive and touching

Mental illness looms large in this week’s releases. It plays a significant part in Stardust and features, too, in A Christmas Gift From Bob. 

But neither of them tackle it with nearly as much verve and empathy as this terrific film from German director Thor Freudenthal, which is driven by a superb performance from 21-year-old Charlie Plummer.

Plummer plays Adam, an American high-school senior diagnosed with schizophrenia, cleverly made manifest to us by three flesh-and-blood characters representing the contrasting voices in his head.

After a traumatic episode in a chemistry class, Adam is given medication to suppress his visions and forced to transfer to a Catholic school, where he is tutored by a fellow pupil, Maya (Taylor Russell, pictured left with Plummer). 

The pair become romantically entwined. But not all is well in Adam’s world.

Plummer plays Adam, an American high-school senior diagnosed with schizophrenia, cleverly made manifest to us by three flesh-and-blood characters representing the contrasting voices in his head

Plummer plays Adam, an American high-school senior diagnosed with schizophrenia, cleverly made manifest to us by three flesh-and-blood characters representing the contrasting voices in his head

Plummer plays Adam, an American high-school senior diagnosed with schizophrenia, cleverly made manifest to us by three flesh-and-blood characters representing the contrasting voices in his head

He mistrusts his stepfather (the always-watchable Walton Goggins) and his mother (Molly Parker, ditto). His only grown-up ally is the school priest, nicely played by Andy Garcia.

Even without Adam’s personality disorder, all this would make for an appealing, albeit familiar, coming-of-age story. But with it, the film — aimed I think, at young-adult audiences — becomes something else, offering a sensitive and moving insight into mental health and an understanding of the rippling effects that Adam’s problems have on life around him.

It becomes a little schmaltzy, especially in one pivotal scene towards the end, but it’s still surprisingly rewarding: seek it out when you can.

For now, it is being shown in UK cinemas that are still open, and will roll out in more, once England’s coronavirus lockdown is over.

Link hienalouca.com

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