Johnny Flynn on how playing David Bowie without the music was a bonus

The British actor and musician portrays a pre-Ziggy Stardust Bowie in Stardust.

It’s perhaps inevitable that a David Bowie biopic has come into existence now, a few years after his death. Bowie’s chameleonic qualities have always made him a compelling subject from the outside, though those very same chameleonic qualities made it nearly impossible to imagine a biopic coming out while he was still alive. I had personally assumed that, if a Bowie biopic was to be made, it would look sort of like Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There — a kaleidoscopic, narratively untethered look at the various personalities and myths that inhabited the life and career of David Jones. Gabriel Range’s Stardust is not that, though it’s also not a top-down biopic in the Bohemian Rhapsody mold. Set in the uncertain times before Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona came to be, Stardust was made without any of the rights to Bowie’s music — a legal matter owing to the Bowie estate, in part, but also an indicator of where Bowie was at that time.

Johnny Flynn plays Bowie, who’s booked on an American tour that he soon learns will include absolutely no performances — only PR. Flanked by an earnest A&R man (Marc Maron) whose position on the totem pole seems to be lower than he lets on, Bowie attempts to sell the image of “David Bowie” to America, despite the fact that he himself doesn’t seem that clear on who that is. Mostly abandoned by record companies and with only a couple of hits under his belt, Bowie is faced with making a decision for the future — any decision.

Johnny Flynn is aware that the film’s very existence may not please Bowie purists and that the lack of songs from the period gives Stardust a very particular position in the story it tells.  “I suppose you could call it a challenge, but for me it was what made it worth doing,” Flynn explains. “I’m not so interested in recreating the moments that everybody knows about. There’s probably less value in that. It’s less important for people to see that. I wanted to imagine who David was at this time without knowing… there’s certainly less footage of him pre-Ziggy. But there are some striking elements to this moment in time that he put together to become this new force that we all know. That was why I wanted to do it in the first place.”

One of the positive by-products of the film being set when it’s set and of the production not having access to Bowie’s biggest hits is the fact that the film avoids the jukebox-y tendencies of other rock biopics. In other words, there’s no inkling of Bowie hearing someone mention a rock ‘n roll suicide in passing and writing the song on the spot from that burst of inspiration. “For all of those reasons, I don’t really love those films, the jukebox musicals,” Flynn explains. “In fact, this kind of thing is the only way I would want to approach a story about somebody like David. Not having the music, as far I was concerned, was only an asset. Since I was on board, we never wanted the music or sought it. 

“For me, what makes it interesting is that you know what David sounds like on those iconic records, but in 1971 when he went to America, he didn’t have the band he recorded The Man Who Sold the World with, and in many ways, it’s him running away from who he is or being too afraid to investigate himself at this point. He was too scared of what he might find. A lot of his songs about madness, and we know that he was afraid of his mind collapsing at this point. Instead, he’s covering Jacques Brel, he’s obsessed with the Velvet Underground and working with Linsday Kemp, doing mime stuff. That’s what I wanted to show and see. Not having the music was a chance to put the emphasis on the other stuff.”

Johnny Flynn and Marc Maron in Stardust

Listeners of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast had sort of an inside look at the making of Stardust as Maron outlined the production in the intro of every episode as he shot the film. A low-budget movie shot mainly in and around Hamilton, Ontario, Stardust ultimately proves to be a bit of a buddy road movie between Bowie and Ron Oberman, the gruff, neurotic A&R man portrayed by Maron. “I really love Marc,” says Flynn. “I love working with him. Apart from being perfectly cast in the part, his energy and the dynamic of it… My take on David is very retiring and vulnerable, and then you’ve got Marc who’s very brash and — for me, as a Brit — has a very American energy. Part of the storytelling is, yes, to have this kind of odd couple. For me, personally, I love Marc and was a big fan of his show. I was excited and a bit nervous to work with him, because he doesn’t seem to be someone who pulls many punches and is brutally honest. I like that — but it’s just that I’m very, very British about things, and he’s very American. 

“We hung out a lot — we bonded over music, and we talk quite a lot now,” he continues. “We text a lot about music, and once in a while I’ll send him a record or song that I like. He’s interviewed me for his podcast, which is really fun and kind of surreal, because I listen to it every week, as do many of my friends. I was able to call up people and go, ‘Oh, I’m going on What The Fuck!’ which was very cool. I adore him. I think he’s a profound mind and presence in the world, and his honesty is brilliant. He’s only a force for good, as far as I’m concerned, and I loved going on this journey with him. I loved discovering all these blues artists and jamming with him — we’d wait around for shots to be lined up and play guitars and get annoyed when they called us to do a scene because we’d be listening to Son House or whatever. We really clicked, and it’s nice because it mirrors the journey that Bowie and Ron Oberman went on.” ■

Stardust is available on VOD on Friday, Nov. 27. For more about the film and Johnny Flynn, please visit the Stardust IMDB page. Watch the trailer below:

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie in Stardust

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