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'Stardust' is a Bowie pic without his music but that was always the plan: director

TORONTO — Gabriel Range’s controversial David Bowie drama “Stardust” has angered fans of the pop music icon for many reasons, but the British director thinks much of it comes down to misguided expectations.

TORONTO — Gabriel Range’s controversial David Bowie drama “Stardust” has angered fans of the pop music icon for many reasons, but the British director thinks much of it comes down to misguided expectations.

The filmmaker points to the popularity of recent jukebox musicals — Queen’s rowdy biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Elton John’s vibrant “Rocketman” — as unfairly raising the bar for his Canadian-shot indie drama to operate on a similar level of untethered energy.

“They're both great films, they're just not the kind of film that I wanted to make,” he explained in an interview from London ahead of the release of "Stardust" on Friday in theatres and video-on-demand.

“I hope rather than being a sing-along, (“Stardust”) tells you something that you actually didn’t know ... It is a quiet, intimate film about a young man setting out on a journey as a performer.”

The film, which Range says isn't a "biopic" because it only spans a year of Bowie's life, features English actor Johnny Flynn in the lead role and comedian Marc Maron as his U.S. publicist.

Together, they set out on a tour of the United States as the 24-year-old singer attempts to overcome his one-hit-wonder status, playing small bar shows and mingling with journalists and radio disc jockeys.

Bowie's breakout 1972 Ziggy Stardust album was still on the horizon, and his attention was divided between the personal turmoil of his brother's deteriorating mental health and the search for his own public persona.

Shot in 16 days around Toronto and Hamilton, the film uses local motels, concert halls and country roads to stand in for the United States of the early 1970s.

But “Stardust” is missing one key element of the performer's early life: his music.

Bowie's estate refused to participate in the project and declined the rights to his songs. Those missing elements left a dent in the illusion that’s hard to ignore.

In one scene, Flynn's Bowie makes an anticipated step onto the stage only to launch into a cover of "I Wish You Would" by the Yardbirds, a point that's been mocked online.

Range doesn’t consider the absence of the songs that launched Bowie's career a strike against his film's authenticity and says he knew all along he wouldn't have access to the musician's early catalogue.

He had experienced similar difficulties in the past. 

Another script he co-wrote before "Stardust" centred on the months Bowie spent with Iggy Pop in West Berlin, as they tried to escape fame and break their drug addictions.

But securing the rights to music from two legends was even more complicated, he said. Plans to shoot the film never got off the ground.

So in the case of "Stardust," Range insists it was always less about the music and more about the man, an approach that he found “hugely liberating.”

“Instead of having that enormous pressure to make it a spin through his greatest hits, there was the opportunity to do something that was much more modest,” he said.

Still, that hasn’t made launching “Stardust” into the cinematic stratosphere any easier.

Many Bowie fans haven't warmed to the film, saying that it was the singer's wish to never have his life re-created for cinematic entertainment. They've let that feeling be known on social media, and Range said lead actor Flynn has been the target of "a lot of abuse" over his part in the project.

But Range is accustomed to being on the defensive for his work. 

In 2006, he directed the docudrama “Death of a President,” which imagines the assassination of then-U.S. President George W. Bush. The film ignited a fury of criticism at the Toronto International Film Festival where it premiered and led to him receiving a number of death threats.

Nothing so dramatic has happened with "Stardust," he said, though he still takes issue with Bowie faithful who don't think filmmakers should have the freedom to interpret the story behind his cultural impact.

 “It's an entirely valid thing for us to explore the life of a public figure,” he said.

“And we do it in a way that is delicate and sensitive.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2020.

David Friend, The Canadian Press