When Johnny Flynn became David Bowie for new film, ‘Stardust’

Johnny Flynn as Ziggy Stardust

If January 2021 wasn’t all about telly, now it surely is. On 15 January, following – ever so slightly – in the footsteps of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman another great musical biopic will land, this time with David Bowie as the focal point played by Johnny Flynn. The Brixton-born genius (who has reached practical god-like status since his death in 2016) is no simple part to play, which is why actor and musician Flynn turned down the role when the film’s director Gabriel Range first emailed him. It was only years later in 2018, when Flynn visited the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition in Brooklyn, New York, that he decided to take on the role and embrace his spirit.

Johnny Flynn as Ziggy Stardust

The film, rather than being a blockbuster ‘biopic’ that spans Bowie’s full life is probably better compared to Sam Taylor-Johnson’s Nowhere Boy, the story about John Lennon before he became a Beatle. Similarly, Stardust is about David Bowie in America in the period leading up to the creation of his famous, flame-haired alter ego, Ziggy Stardust (which led to his global stardom). Flynn told Yahoo Movies: ‘It’s quite a small film. It’s really not in the same sort of genre or emotional feel as those big biopic films. It’s very much a tiny origin story for him. So I really hope people receive it in the way it’s meant to be received. It was a huge privilege to have a go at.’ Visually, between Flynn and the film’s hair and make-up team, they’ve done an impressive job. Not an easy task when Flynn was never a dead ringer for the world-famous musician (except for perhaps having comparable jawlines).

David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust in 1973

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The only spanner in the works is the absence of Bowie’s music in the film. In February 2019 Bowie’s son, from his first marriage to Angela Bowie, the film director Duncan Jones, announced that Stardust did not have the family’s blessing and nor did the film-makers have the rights to use his father’s music. In an interview with the Times, Flynn (who starred in Emma and Beast), criticised the decision saying: ‘It’s a dangerous attitude to have. It’s a kind of cancel-culture bullshit. Not being in bed with the estate, the movie is journalistic in tone.’

Johnny Flynn in Stardust

Paul Van Carter

The film, written by Christopher Bell and Gabriel Range, is the tale of young Bowie’s first trip to America in 1971, after he had experienced some success in the UK with the release of Space Oddity (1969), The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971). But the film presents the star en route to the gravity-defying fame that came with the release of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in 1972 with songs like Suffragette City and Starman. Far from the Bowie we all recognise in the trailer, it depicts a less familiar man in search of an identity. His Mercury Records publicist executive, Rob Oberman (played by Glee star Marc Maron), is exasperated at Bowie’s refusal to play the corporate game and his experimentation with cross-dressing and sexuality, but retains an infectious optimism that he’s in the company of a brooding star just before it goes stratospheric.

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie

Stardust will be released on digital platforms Friday 15 January 2021

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