Greetings again from the darkness. Traditionally, an “unauthorized biopic” will contain some of the less-desirable, and often more entertaining aspects of its subject; however, writer-director Gabriel Range (with co-writer Christopher Bell) admit up front that this is mostly “fictional”. Since David Bowie’s son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, announced that the family was not participating in the project, we somehow miss out on both the personal “dirt” and the actual music of the icon. What remains is an odd couple road trip representing Bowie’s first American tour in 1971.
Johnny Flynn stars as a young (early 20’s) David Bowie. Flynn is a musician-actor recently seen as Mr. Knightley in this year’s excellent EMMA. He’s very talented, but certainly bears little physical resemblance to the androgynous waif of early-1970’s Bowie. We first see Flynn’s Bowie through his dream during an airplane flight. The riff on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is our first clue that the film will track Bowie’s transformation from David Jones to David Bowie to Ziggy Stardust. It plays as a search for his identity … though he mostly just seems to desire being hailed as a star, rather than a musical genius.
Jena Malone appears as Bowie’s first wife, Angie. She’s presented as quite controlling and eager to bask in the success she expects from her husband. We also see her teasing their open marriage, and pregnant with Duncan. When Bowie lands in America, he’s put through the ringer with U.S. Customs and Immigrations – his flowing dress doesn’t help. Bowie is disappointed that Mercury Records has sent Ron Oberman (an excellent Marc Maron) as his station-wagon driving publicist – not exactly the red carpet he envisioned.
Bowie and Oberman on the road is the highlight of the movie. Bowie is relegated to playing the worst imaginable gigs … like a Eureka vacuum salesman conference, while Oberman preaches practicality. Beyond that, Bowie seems self-defeating at every opportunity and we never quite understand his motivation. Miming during an interview with a rock publication can’t seem wise to anyone, no matter how offbeat they perceive themselves. On top of the disastrous American trip, Bowie is dealing with the “family curse”, as his mother describes it. Bowie’s brother Tony (Derek Moran) is shown battling a mental illness, likely schizophrenia. Of course, given his gene pool, David is concerned for his own well-being.
Recent biopics of Elton John (ROCKETMAN, 2019) and Freddie Mercury (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018) are perfect examples of what this film is not. This is more of an exploration of identity before Bowie became an iconic theatrical rocker. The influences of Iggy Pop and Marc Bolan (played by James Cade) are hinted at, but mostly the birth of Ziggy Stardust just seems to happen. Commencing countdown to a biopic of a musician before he’s famous, and being handicapped by not having access to his original music, is quite a challenge, and considering those things, even if it’s watchable, it’s likely to be crucified by Bowie devotees.