Why biopics go so wrong

Johnny Flynn
Johnny Flynn as David Bowie

Stardust, a new movie about a young David Bowie, has been widely mocked. It’s just the latest example of a real-life icon making for a disastrous film subject, writes Nicholas Barber.

By Nicholas Barber

Released in 2018, the hit Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody had its producers singing We Are the Champions: it won four Oscars and took close to $1bn at the box office. The following year, Rocketman, a musical based on the life of Elton John, did well, too, making enough money to keep Sir Elton in designer specs for decades, and nabbing two Oscars of its own. And now Stardust, featuring Johnny Flynn as a young David Bowie, thus completing a trilogy of dramas about exotically stage-named, sexually adventurous British glam-rock legends. The film is released in the UK today, so presumably its producers are just waiting for the trophies and the profits to roll in.

Or maybe not. There is no doubting the sincerity of its Bowie-phile cast and crew, but unlike Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, Stardust is a low-budget indie movie with some unavoidable flaws. The director made the curious decision to cast actors in their thirties, forties and even fifties as people who were in their twenties at the time. And because Stardust wasn’t approved by the late singer’s estate, it has to do without any of his songs.

Unsurprisingly, the trailer was mocked on social media when it was unveiled in October, and, when the film came out in the US in November, the AV Club’s critic dismissed it as ”a junky biographical drama that doesn’t feature any music by Bowie or his contemporaries and stars a guy who doesn’t look or sound anything like the man”. That was one of the more enthusiastic reviews.

The risks involved

The lesson is that the celebrity biopic is the most high-risk of genres. When it goes well, it fills cinemas and wins awards, especially in the 21st Century. But

Continue reading

Blond ambition: the rise and rise of Johnny Flynn, a man for all seasons

He’s already a star of folk music, stage and film, and now the actor is bringing a blond – and nude – Mr Knightley to cinemas in a new take on Emma

Being a fictional hero was once a more straightforward business. You were handsome, you were honourable and brave: you were in. Colin Firth only had to dampen his white shirt a little to update Jane Austen’s most famous romantic lead, Mr Darcy, in the hit 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

But changing times call for a fresh approach. And so the portrayal of Mr Knightley, hero of the latest big-screen version of Austen’s Emma, has been the subject of much speculation ahead of the film’s opening on 14 February.

Johnny Flynn, actor, musician and renaissance man, has the tricky job of measuring up to every Austen fan’s dreams of George Knightley, the wise and kindly figure who has always rivalled the more austere Darcy in readers’ affections.

Newspaper headlines so far have inevitably focused on a scene in which Flynn appears nude. “Move over Mr Darcy!” cried the Daily Mail.

Flynn as George Knightley in director Autumn de Wilde’s Emma.
 Flynn as George Knightley in director Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. Photograph: Focus Features

If Flynn, who will also appear on screen this year as David Bowie

in Stardust, as well as in British film The Dig, already looks familiar, it is because of his recent role in the BBC serialisation of Les Misérables, or as the dependable William Dobbin in ITV’s Vanity Fair. Yet the actor, 36, says he knew from the start that he had to handle Knightley with especial care. Quite apart from the line in the novel where his character admits to having loved Emma Woodhouse, 16 years his junior, since she was 13 years old, Knightley also does a fair amount of moral lecturing. Something the director, Autumn de Wilde, admits can read today like “mansplaining”.

Continue reading

15 UK films to tempt festival directors in 2020

Johnny Flynn as David Bowie
Johnny Flynn as David Bowie

Beyond Sundance and before Toronto: new films from Clio Barnard, Francis Lee, Andrea Arnold, Edgar Wright, Sally Potter and Joanna Hogg.


Dir: Gabriel Range
Beast star Johnny Flynn plays a young David Bowie and Jena Malone is his wife Angie in this chronicle of Bowie’s first visit to the US in 1971. Range is the Emmy award-winning filmmaker whose feature credits include I Am Slave and Death Of A President. The screenplay is by Christopher Bell. 
Contact: Film Constellation

After Love

Dir: Aleem Khan
Joanna Scanlan plays a woman who, having converted to Islam for her late husband, uncovers details of his secret family in the French town of Calais. After Love is produced by Matthieu de Braconier of London and Paris-based outfit The Bureau and is backed by BBC Films and the BFI. Khan is a former Screen UK Star of Tomorrow.
Contact: BBC Films Continue reading