Stardust

Johnny Flynn

 

Stardust, echoing the title of his most consequential album, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, charts the journey of David Bowie from washout – the big 1969 hit Space Oddity not having led on to greatness – to the moment he became the David Bowie of legend.

Gabriel Range’s film pegs that moment as being when Bowie first stepped on stage in 1972 with his new band, the Spiders from Mars, though fans will rightly point out that the decisive shift actually came with the previous album, Hunky Dory, in particular the song Queen Bitch, a moment of arch Ziggy-ness inspired by Lou Reed.

But, fanboy grumbles to one side, let’s talk about the film – in 1971 on the verge of being finished Bowie is sent on a solo promo tour of America by his manager, encouraged by his pregnant wife Angie (Jena Malone), only to find on arrival that the cool reception at immigration is matched by the attitude of Mercury Records.

There is no limo, there is no tour, just Ron (Marc Maron), a hack publicist. Off the two head on their “tour” – a convention of vacuum cleaner salesmen here, a strait-laced radio station there, with the enthusiastic (“I believe in you”) Ron promising to get David on the cover of Rolling Stone, though David, withdrawn, fey, insecure, sarcastic, superior, diffident seems determined to sabotage any interview by playing the awkward artist card, even though he is desperate to be a star.

One of the things his interviewers want to know is what Bowie’s most recent album – The Man Who Sold the World – is “about”, in particular the single, All the Madmen. And Bowie is particularly reluctant to tell them because his brother, Terry, is currently buzzing away on a cocktail of drugs inside a mental institution, the latest of the singer’s relations to come down with what his mother calls “the family curse”.

As the 1970s warmed up and drinkers in 1960s music’s last chance saloon piled into glam rock, pop music fell prey to the “builders in eyeliner” syndrome. It didn’t afflict Bowie. Though Johnny Flynn, who plays Bowie here, does have mild symptoms. Flynn is not androgynous enough to mimic Bowie’s gender-bending style – on the cover of Hunky Dory Bowie poses as a Hollywood goddess (on The Man Who Sold the World he’s in a dress). Director Gabriel Range seems to have decided to make it a bit of a theme – in this film Bowie’s rival, the elfin Marc Bolan (James Cade), also looks more like someone more familiar with the coal lorry than the faerie glade.

 

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie introduces the world to Ziggy Stardust

 

But in spite of all that angular masculinity, Flynn is very good as Bowie, a charmless, self-absorbed, uncertain and silly man and a bit of a dick. A lot of a dick in fact, especially in his dealings with Ron, who is a decent guy and who, in conversations with Bowie leads him to his breakthrough thought – ditch rock’s obsession with authenticity and embrace parody and theatricality. Abandon any idea of being a rock star and instead play the role. Stardust.

Why is publicist Ron a man in his 50s when the publicist he’s based on was more Bowie’s age – 20s? Why are the two Rolling Stone journalists we see middle aged men, when Rolling Stone back then was a youth operation? Bowie’s manager, Tony Defries, was under 30 at the time. He’s a chunk older here.

Though this is only a snit, and Maron in particular is excellent as the enthusiastic but careworn Ron, the age issue is bizarre. Wouldn’t the film have more appeal to a young audience if it spoke in that “very heaven to be alive” voice of, say, Almost Famous? Or perhaps Range is using the actors’ age to suggest the general dowdiness of the era.

Fans, be aware, there is no Bowie music here – the estate said no – instead, as in the Hendrix film All Is by My Side, we have a few songs that Bowie covered (Brel, The Yardbirds), a Bowie-esque tune penned by Flynn and Anne Nikitin’s pastiche-y soundtrack plugging the gaps.

If this had been a Rocket Man or Bohemian Rhapsody, that might be problem. But it isn’t and it isn’t. Because this is a portrait of a pre-fame star coming up with his own fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy.

Very funny here and there, more fascinated than awed by its subject, it’s a very good film about an all-too-flawed character. And in being about a human being rather than a starman it’s really going to infuriate the self-appointed keepers of the flame.

 

Stardust – Watch it/but it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Moon

Sam Rockwell times two in Moon

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

 

13 November

Nasa finds “significant” water on the Moon, 2009

On this day in 2009, Nasa reported that it had found “significant” amounts of water on the Moon. The word “significant” is significant, since scientists had already discovered water on the Moon, but it seemed to be locked in mineral grains – so-called magmatic water, which comes from deep within the Moon’s interior. The 13 November announcement reported the findings of an experiment which crashed a 2,200kg rocket stage, followed by a probe containing a near-infrared spectrometer, into a crater at the Moon’s south pole, where it was hoped ice would be kicked up. This is exactly what happened, but it was the amount of water vapour and ice that scientists saw that surprised them – “a dozen two-gallon buckets”. Anthony Colprete, Nasa’s chief scientist for the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission elaborated – “We didn’t just find a little bit; we found a significant amount”. It’s an important find because the water can act as a resource for future astronauts, providing drinking water, breathable air (once it’s been broken down) and the components oxygen and hydrogen – “potent rocket fuel”, as Mike Wargo, Nasa’s chief lunar scientist for exploration systems described it.

 

 

Moon (2009, dir: Duncan Jones)

People these days rarely mention that Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son. When Moon came out Jones, largely an unknown quantity, seemed to be perilously close to treading in dad’s footprints – Bowie’s breakthrough song Space Oddity being all about an isolated spaceman singing about how distant Earth looks and how helpless he feels – “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”. Moon, too, is about an isolated spaceman, played by Sam Rockwell, whose long lonely stint on a moonbase is about to come to an end, so he thinks, when a freak accident wakes from the chiller a Sam clone that the original Sam knew nothing about. But is Original Sam even the original Sam? Into this fascinating, twist-driven plot is added the “character” of Sam’s only companion up there, an affectless computer, voiced with full cognisance of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL by Kevin Spacey – in space no one can hear you sneer. The reason why the “he’s Bowie’s son” mentions stopped very shortly after Moon came out is because it’s so good, achieves so much with so little. Jones had clearly watched the Clooney/Soderbergh Solaris and thought “nah, I could do better than that.” And he has – Moon is a lean and sleek piece of elemental, cerebral sci-fi that wears its 2001 looks on its sleeve. And let’s not forget the often slightly underrated Stockwell, who brilliantly differentiates between the different Sams by offering us different grades of human box-freshness (OK, the beard helps too). Like the film itself, beautifully, elegantly done.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A two-hander sci-fi, one of the hands being just a voice
  • A sci-fi movie loved by sci-fi writers
  • The Bowie-Eno-esque soundtrack by Clint Mansell, formerly of Pop Will Eat Itself
  • Futuristic sci-fi for retro sci-fi fans

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Moon – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Velvet Goldmine

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Velvet Goldmine

 

 

 

 

In 1988 Todd Haynes made Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. In it he used Barbie and Ken dolls instead of actors to play out the tragic story of the singer with the golden voice whose anorexia eventually killed her off. Karen’s brother Richard Carpenter stamped it out of the record books, claiming Haynes didn’t have clearance to use the music. It has since resurfaced as an entry on imdb and pops up on youtube in various shitty resolutions.

Haynes is in pop-music territory again with Velvet Goldmine, moving Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers into 20th-century-boy poses in a story about a newspaper reporter (Christian Bale) in 1984 doing a story on the high point of glam rock more than ten years before. In particular he’s on the hunt, Citizen Kane-style, for its prettiest star, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). As he digs, Bowie, Bolan, Bryan Ferry, Steve Harley, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed are all excavated from the mound of dicarded tinsel, though Haynes has learnt his lesson and no one is too identifiable – even though the film itself is named after a Bowie song recorded for the Ziggy Stardust sessions and left out of the finished album. It can’t be denied, the film does have its share of naffery, but then so did the 70s. It’s the good bits that make it worthwhile. They succeed in transporting the viewer to the “gorgeous, gorgeous time when we were all living our dreams” as one character puts it. The soundtrack is transportational too, reminding us of the project of so many 1970s glam acts to sound like camp extra-terrestrials – Ferry, Bowie, Eno, they were all at it. The film wasn’t exactly a smash hit on the big screen, probably because the death of dreams doesn’t make most people want to wet themselves with glee. It’s a film that tries hard, perhaps too hard. But at least it dares to try.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

Velvet Goldmine – Buy the book (no film available) it at Amazon