Absolute Bowieginners: STARDUST Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Absolute Bowieginners: STARDUST Review

Chris Morley goes on tour with the pre-Ziggy Bowie.
While the wider response to Stardust has been mostly lukewarm, consider that the David Bowie you see here is far from the finished article. This perhaps makes it easier to give it a fairer reception shorn of most preconceptions to the recently released biographical film about Bowie and the creation of his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust.

The pre-Ziggy Bowie here is a man still smarting from the comparative failure of The Man Who Sold The World, portrayed by British musician, singer, songwriter and actor Johnny Flynn who takes him on a journey towards a sort of multiple-self discovery - that is given our foreknowledge of where Stardust will take him once his career hits the heights. Indeed, this is perhaps best viewed as a sort of dramatized road movie of his first US tour in 1971.

We are at least given a glimpse into his inspirations of the period. Probably largely down to David's estate refusing to allow his music to be used in the movie, which allows those who sparked something in him to shine in its absence. Take for instance the use of songs he saw fit to cover - Jacques Brel's My Death and the Yardbirds' I Wish You Would among them in probably the most literal application of such in any related projects save maybe David's own versions which were preserved for posterity in a roundabout fashion in the Spiders From Mars documentary of 1979, capturing what would be their final show in '73, the day Ziggy was retired for good.
In a sense, then, Stardust is a prelude to the glamour years. It features another herald along for the ride in the shape of Marc Bolan, Bowie's friend & creative rival portrayed by James Cade, and of course the rhythmic heart of the Spiders, Mick Ronson given life by Aaron Poole, and Angie aka Mrs Bowie portrayed by Jena Malone. Angie herself hasn't exactly held back in her thoughts on the treatment Stardust gives her late ex-husband's legacy!
“David would have never watched it. It should be called the Ron Oberman Whingeing and Whining story. It was boring. I didn’t find it entertaining at all. It’s more dreary than a one-star documentary. It was too neutral and bland and without the music, there is nothing.”
Malone's take on her perhaps erring a bit on the side of the wider public perception of Angie as the one not so much encouraging him as pushing him into the spotlight just to make sure the former Major Tom left Earth once & for all!
“A rock star or somebody impersonating a rock star, what’s the difference?”
In a sense that should be the question we're asking here, as Bowie himself does after mistaking Lou Reed's Velvet Underground replacement Doug Yule. Somewhat frustratingly there's no hint of the pay- off of Bowie's discovery of which of those he came to be, but we're reminded at various junctures that this is about the journey, the Tour De Ziggy as it were...

And to its credit this isn't the road widely supposed to have been taken in the popular imagination. Here, David is troubled by the very real spectre of mental illness, wondering if a family history of such will claim him too, unsure of his talents, hurt by criticism as he plots his next move, with his US publicist Ron Oberman, played by Marc Maron, very much the driving force behind his trip Stateside.

And it's a tour which got off on the wrong foot as Bowie had the wrong visa! The lack of an HI working visa forced him to perform only covers as opposed to his own music, the full official performing visa was the one he really needed in order to get his own message across.

Bowie's first stop Stateside was Oberman's parents' house, as Ron's brother Michael, then a music journalist for the Washington Star, later remembered.

"David was special because he really wanted to spend his first day in the United States with an American family.”
His arrival on US soil was considerably less rooted in normality, though. Held up in customs at Dulles International Airport, upon his release he was forced to in a way replicate the experience during a trip to a restaurant...
“It was like going through customs all over again because the hostess was taken aback. So they put us in a booth and the booth had curtains and they closed the curtains on us. The waitress would come over, ask, 'Would you like something?' and then close the curtains again. We got a kick, we were chuckling the entire time in there."
September of '71 found him trying a few things out on home ground before he set off, in the probably far less glamorous surroundings of the Friars' Club in Aylesbury! A first gig there encouraged Bowie in his plan to form what would become the Spiders From Mars, as he told Ronson & fellow band members Trevor Bolder & Woody Woodmansey that “This was great tonight. Let’s form a band and go out and do it properly.” Which of course they would, to great effect within just four months. Among the audience were Freddie Mercury & Roger Taylor of Queen, the drummer going on to say afterwards...
“I think it could have been the first-ever Ziggy Stardust gig and it blew us away – we were blown away – it was so fantastic, like nothing else that was happening and so far ahead of its time – The guy had so much talent to burn really and charisma to burn as well. I hate to gush but he did have it like no-one else did at the time.”
That period of Bowie's career, though, is comparatively well-documented. The thrill here in Stardust is discovering a fresh take on the lead-up to it. The easy option perhaps would have been to mine the golden years, but bucking the trend surely deserves credit? The years where he could all too easily have stagnated are a better fit for such treatment, and that is what is given here, and perhaps this is why Stardust has been unfairly overlooked by critics keener to preserve the idea of Bowie as untouchable icon?

Expect a classic and you'll surely be disappointed. Go into Stardust open-minded & willing to question orthodox Bowieography, though, and you might find something to like in the man not yet ready to take on, much less sell, the world.

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