A rock-star biopic without a note of the rock star's music in it is an unpromising thing. Witness the 2013 "CBGB," a very bad movie about the celebrated Bowery punk bar in its prime. None of the musicians impersonated in the film — members of Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, the Ramones, the Patti Smith Group — were accompanied by any of their famous songs. Equally ludicrous was the casting: Kyle Gallner as Lou Reed, Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins as Iggy Pop, Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry and — as hard as this still is to believe — the unarguably English Alan Rickman as ultra-New Yorky CBGB owner Hilly Kristal. I'd say don't ever waste a dime on seeing this movie, but the negative was probably binned and burned just days after its release.
Hitless rock biopics can work, to an extent. Consider another 2013 film, "Jimi: All Is by My Side." Since it was set in New York in the days before Jimi Hendrix relocated to London to become a godlike sonic innovator, this film could simply ignore the indelible hits that came later and make do with the sort of cover tunes in which Hendrix trafficked at the time. The picture also featured a warm and lovely performance by Andre Benjamin in the lead role. "All Is by My Side" (the original title before someone decided it might be nice to give potential ticket buyers an inkling of what the film is about) isn't a great movie, but unlike "CBGB," it's worth seeing, if only for Benjamin.
Now comes "Stardust," a movie about David Bowie that was likewise unable to shell out for vintage music. Which is OK, because, like "Jimi: All Is by My Side," the story here is set in a pre-fame world that requires no pricy old tracks. And "Stardust" is also bolstered by a fascinating lead performance, this one by Johnny Flynn. Flynn, featured most recently in the excellent "Emma.," was a shrewd choice for this role. He may not look a lot like Bowie (although wigs and dental prosthetics help), but he's a musician (has his own band, in fact), and he's at home with the guitar, violin and harmonium he's called upon to play. He's a good singer in a Bowie style, too. And, of course, it doesn't hurt that he's a Brit (of South African origin) either.
The movie begins in 1971 and focuses on the young Bowie and his stumbling transformation from a near nobody to the man who owned the world. This David had scored an international hit in 1969 with "Space Oddity"; now, a dozen non-hit singles later, his career has stalled. His record company decides to give him a shot at the American market, but when he arrives in the States, he discovers he's been given no visa and has no permission from the American musicians' union to perform in the U.S. Fortunately, a publicist from his American label, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), is a fan of his work and willing to drive him around the country in pursuit of the fame with which he's obsessed. ("I need to be known," he says desperately.) Since Bowie can't do U.S. concerts, Oberman gets him an inauspicious gig at a gathering of bored vacuum-cleaner salesmen.
The movie is charmingly anecdotal and deft at working in a dark subplot involving David's brother, Terry (Derek Moran), who appears to have inherited the schizophrenia that runs through their family (David is terrified that he'll be the next one diagnosed). Decidedly lighter are Bowie's lame provocations in early press interviews ("Strong hash can really mess with your gourd"); some acidulous scenes with David's fiery wife, Angela (Jena Malone); and a priceless interlude in which Bowie, having hired a jeans-wearing new band (later The Spiders from Mars), appalls all three of them when he reveals the ultra-glam stage costumes he's created for them.
"It takes a real man to wear pink and pull it off," he says.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.