David Bowie passed away on January 10, 2016, an evening no one attending the 73rd Golden Globes will likely forget. That night, after the ceremony, revelers crowded the dance floors of the after-parties, when one DJ after the next started playing Bowie songs while fans shed tears for their fallen idol. The HFPA’s Silvia Bizio reports on the first film based on Bowie’s life.
Under normal circumnstances Gabriel Range, would have been introducing his David Bowie biopic, Stardust to a theater audience at the Tribeca Film Festival. Instead his intro happened via Zoom before the film was streamed online - one of the first virtual premieres of this strange time. He did his best to sound philosophical.“The universe has taken a bit of a turn, so we are trying something new,” he said. “I’m told that people are tuning in from five different continents right now, which is just mind-blowing.”
In Stardust, which focuses on the early years of Bowie’s career and an unsuccessful US tour, the artist is played by Johnny Flynn. Jena Malone plays his wife Angie, to whom he was married from 1970 to 1980. Marc Maron plays Ron Oberman, the publicist from Mercury Records, who accompanied Bowie in his road trip across America in 1971, attempting to expose Bowie’s talent to America. Back then, Ziggy Stardust - the persona – was not yet born, but just an emerging idea.
Given the upheaval caused by COVID-19, the idea of the virtual premiere seemed the best alternative to launch the film, The online platform allowed for 150 journalists and guests from all over the world to tune in and listen to Range and the actors, speak from their own homes about the movie. Except for having a crowd fill a theater, it was a little like being at a premiere screening in Hollywood.
“Put your headsets on, pump up the volume and enjoy the film,” said the director before starting the movie.
Stardust doesn't have much music at all, leaving most of the storytelling to Bowie’s own words. “I guess everyone has their own idea of David Bowie,” explains Range. “For some, he's Ziggy or The Thin White Duke or Aladdin Sane or he’s Bowie in the 70s or 80s, doing popular hits like Let’s Dance and China Girl. So much of his brilliance as an artist is tied up in that constant reinvention and all of those incredible characters that he created. But I think you can trace all of them back to one period early in his career, and that is when our film is set.”
Range’s love of Bowie and his work goes back a long way. “Like many people, I was a complete Bowie obsessive as a kid. I bought all his records, I read every magazine article I could get my hands on. In the last few years, I read all the biographies and the thing that really surprised me, given his fame, was how little people seem to know about this chapter of his life and about his family background.
“David had a half brother who was ten years older than him, called Terry, and they were incredibly close. In the mid-’60s Terry basically gave David his musical education and took him to loads of gigs and they bought records together. When David was 20, Terry has this complete mental breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he was sent to an asylum in Southeast London. That had a huge impact on David because there was already this specter of mental illness in the family. Three of his aunts also had schizophrenia. And so David had this very real fear that that could happen to him also. And that fear is really present on the album The Man Who Sold the World and of course the single All the Madmen.”
“Those were the records that he took with him to America for the first time. Back then Bowie was not yet a star – he’d had one hit single, Space Oddity, enough to get some press on this American trip. But the trip itself was kind of a disaster: he didn’t have the right Visa or musician’s union paperwork, so he couldn’t perform the songs that he was there to promote. That is what this movie is about.”
Johnny Flynn chimes from his house: “I had the time of my life making the film,” he says. “Even though when I first got sent the script, it was a version that Gabriel hadn’t completely gotten his fingers into it yet. And I was like ‘oh I don’t know if I can do this. Even without meeting, I can’t touch that stuff!’ Besides, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would want to play David Bowie. I asked some friends and they were like 'you are *%$#**ng crazy!'. And then I read it again and it is indeed really specific and it’s really about this moment and it’s different from other recent pictures of rock musicians. In one moment, it’s like a prism through which to see that whole life, you see the genesis of this person. To me it wasn’t about trying to capture an impression of David Bowie: it just was asking these questions: who is this person running away from this demon?”
Flynn was able to enter fully the character of that time in Bowie’s life: “There were moments during the shooting where I believed Johnny was Bowie,” added Maron. “And it was mind-blowing because Johnny sounded like him, he dressed like him, he looked like him. There were moments where I was like: this is really Bowie and it’s really 1971, and this is happening!”