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

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“The Dig” coming to NetFlix

As WWII looms, a wealthy widow (Carey Mulligan) hires an amateur archaeologist (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate the burial mounds on her estate. When they make a historic discovery, the echoes of Britain’s past resonate in the face of its uncertain future‎. THE DIG stars Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, and Ken Scott.

In Select Theaters January 15 and on Netflix January 29