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

Johnny Flynn: ‘I feel I need to do things with urgency’

The British musician and actor discusses his latest lead roles – in dark thriller Cordelia and the Bowie biopic Stardust

He’s an actor equipped with “weapons grade animal magnetism” (according to the Observer’s critic Mark Kermode). Over the past decade or so, he has steadily built an enviable CV across film, TV and theatre, flitting seamlessly from edgy contemporary thrillers to classy period adaptations. He’s also a singer and band leader, who has topped off a role in a forthcoming David Bowie biopic by writing and performing a new “Bowie” song. Is there anything Johnny Flynn can’t do?

Chat shows, he says, without missing a beat. “I’m very shy and I get quite overwhelmed. I’ve turned things down in the past on the premise that when the film comes out I’ll have to go on one and I can’t do it! I’ve got over that a little bit, but I’ve been very wary of that type of notoriety.”

His latest film, Cordelia, is a stylish exercise in chamber noir, directed by Adrian Shergold, which puts Flynn’s charisma to use in subverting the comforting stereotypes of boy and girl next door. The eponymous Cordelia (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) is suffering from a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and initially Frank seems just the friend she needs. But for all his friendly, easy-going veneer, he speaks with a slightly lingering intimacy that sends shivers up the back of your neck.

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