Johnny Flynn Defends His New David Bowie Movie 'Stardust'
"You can listen to the records if you want to hear David Bowie"
Published Nov 27, 2020In 2006, director Gabriel Range attracted plenty of controversy with Death of a President — a faux-documentary about the fictional murder of sitting American President George W. Bush. Fast-forward fourteen years, and he's concocted a similarly divisive project with Stardust — a biopic about David Bowie's early career that received neither the blessing nor the music from Bowie's estate.
Musician and actor Johnny Flynn (Scrotal Recall, Beast) was the actor tasked with stepping into Bowie's persona, and he's also taken most of the brunt in the controversy. Still, speaking with Exclaim!, Flynn explains that he knew the film would exist without Bowie's music from the very beginning. In fact, that was its appeal as it allowed him to dig into the inner workings of Bowie without having to rely on a big, broad impression of the late rock legend.
Stardust is available on VOD today (November 27) through Elevation Pictures.
How did this role make its way to you? As a musician yourself and as a David Bowie fan, did you have an internal conflict about whether or not you should do it?
Yeah, it was. In fact, I tried to sort of pass up on it. When it first came to me, I was, I was not at all interested in, you know, another rock star biopic. And an earlier version of the scripts seem to be more like that. And I kind of thought is was a poison chalice, you know? Who the fuck wants to play David Bowie, who is a hero of mine and lots of people? And then I met Gabriel Range, the director. He came to see me in a play in early 2018. And he was taking the story in a very different direction — he wants it to be this tiny moment in time. That really wasn't a jukebox musical in the style of some of the other recent roadster biopics and stuff. And I thought the way he was talking about it was really interesting. It's a couple of weeks in David's life. And it could be anything, it could be anyone, but it happens to be David Bowie, and it's just about what it is to be a young artist figuring stuff out. And I was fascinated to learn the stuff that I did about Dave. I have the records and I know some of the headlines, but I don't know a lot of the things — the themes in the film, like this fear of collapsing into mental illness and things like that. I just thought [it was] so interesting. In lots of ways, not being an official estate-backed studio film with a big budget is an asset. It is more the kind of film I'm interested in seeing, firstly. More akin to a film like Control or Nowhere Boy. Those are the kind of genesis films for the journey of an artist, and just like a prism in which to then see the rest of his life through. So you understand this one moment in his life, and it makes sense of a lot of other things. I thought not being an estate-backed film was an asset because it allowed us to have that authorial sort of objectivity and to tell the story we wanted to tell, albeit very respectfully to David. That's how I got excited once I met Gabriel, and we, you know, we just took it step by step and developed it from there.
Did you know right from the get-go that it wasn't going to be backed by the estate?
Yeah. We never sought the the authorization of the state. And I know Duncan [Jones, Bowie's son] said, when asked about the film, he said, 'They're not doing it with the music.' That's true, but to my mind he wasn't condemning the film. I think he wouldn't necessarily be that offended by it if he saw it. Hopefully not at all. We're not trying to destroy anybody's idea of David with it. We're hopefully kind of augmenting a perspective of him and humanizing him, which I think is a responsible thing to do when we when we talk about great artists.
You did you did mention in The Guardian that you thought that there may be some flak from Bowie fans. Is it happening yet?
Yeah, yeah, very much. It's pretty much as I as I expected. I mean, there's the Bowie fans, who don't want you to fuck with their idea of David. But there's also generally — rather unhelpfully, in this day and age, as you know — there's such a kind of cancel culture on the internet, and the safety of tiny nine-inch devices, whatever they are, brings out the worst in people. I feel like there's an energy that people can't help but be swept up and in terms of condemning things or being offended by things. It provokes interesting dialogue around ideas, but also I think it's kind of sad that people would condemn something without seeing it. Most of the the shit that we've been getting has been from people seeing the trailers, just the idea of the film that's offensive to them. When people see the film, they seem to really like it. And we get great reviews. But I think, if anything, it will provoke some interesting debate. And I don't mind there being a backlash to the film, because I know what our intention was, which was certainly not to be disrespectful.
What was it like knowing you wouldn't have access to David Bowie's music for the film?
The reason why I think I was able to kind of get behind it in the first place was that it was not going to be a jukebox musical. You can listen to the records if you want to hear David Bowie. You can listen to the records, but I'm interested in the space around him that allowed him to figure out who he was at that time. And this is a film about inspiration. And in lots of ways, he seems to be running away from his own output at the time. He won't talk about The Man Who Sold the World or any of its themes in interviews. He's arrived in America with just his guitar and the wrong paperwork. He can't play those songs, which are really heavy on the record, so he's doing covers of Jacques Brel and he's obsessed with the Velvet Underground and he's talking about Anthony Newley and stuff. All of that stuff we're able to do, and that was much more interesting to me. I thought that was a really good thing.
How did you approach the role? How do you become David Bowie without it being kind of a crass impression of David Bowie — a voice like Ricky Gervais doing David Bowie?
I think when people are playing real people, it's very, very specific, or they're trying really hard to do like a perfect person. If they're impersonating, you know, and they're leaning too much into it, all you start to see is the mistakes. Like if [an actor] looks really a lot like Mick Jagger, but there's something really wrong and therefore it's not him. It's really not, you can't believe it. And so I think I'm never going to look exactly like David. And you know, I lost a lot of weight and I had the teeth and got the contact lenses, but I'm never going to be him. So I wanted to have the essence of David and channel something of the spirit of David but allow the audience's imagination to be engaged and, more than anything, to just be a real person in those situations. To take the circumstances and just live in that emotional world that I was building for him and what he was dealing with. That's all I can do. You know, that's the best I can do. I worked really hard at it, but I think the more you lean into it, the more people can kind of pick holes in it. So I was just being real.
Did you use much source material of his to get into the role?
I was studying him all the time. I was reading biographies about him. I was listening to interviews. And the wonderful thing about David, as well in playing him, is that he's like a different person in every interview. I was just talking to journalists who interviewed him a lot in the '70s. And [the journalist] was saying, in an hour-long interview, [Bowie] seemed to kind of move up and down the socioeconomic scale very rapidly. If he was trying to be amenable and approachable in a kind of chummy way, he'd lean on his London side. And he'd be that kind of cheeky South Londoner. Or, if he's trying to kind of disarm you with his charm, he'd use that, or he'd do something outrageously effeminate to kind of try and offend somebody. Or he would use a very proper English voice to say something that he wanted to land as, like, an intelligent idea. He is this chameleonic character. That's one of the big things I noticed about him. So I thought, it's cool to have that chance to be a different version of myself in all these different scenes as well. I tried to do that, and somebody helped me with some movement. And I studied a lot of the references that he was into as much as watching him, you know. I was watching videos of Lauren Bacall walking up and down staircases, because he talked about Lauren Bacall a lot. And Kabuki theatre and Lindsay Kemp and mime stuff. He was just an amazing sort of mashup of all these different things that he put together in this period to become his first successful creation in Ziggy Stardust. So yeah, it was great fun thinking about the kaleidoscope of different characters that he was.
It's interesting to see someone like David Bowie as just another struggling artist trying to have his voice heard.
Well, that was that was what made it a story worth telling, because it reminds people that even these great innovators, these great artists, they started somewhere. We need to be reminded of that. In this country, in the UK, we really suffer from what they call "tall poppy syndrome." If somebody has a bold idea, they cut them down. It's so suffocating. And yet we love our heroes. But it's good to be reminded that those heroes, you know, back when they were 24 or 25, failing and struggling and trying stuff out and experimenting and figuring out their voice and stuff like, that people were attacking them all the time and cutting them down. I did this film as much as anything to say, 'Come on, we've got to give everybody a break. We have to allow people artistic freedom.' And ironically, the film, which is a bold story, has been cut down by those same people with the same attitude of like, 'No, you can't do that.' Which, in and of itself, feels like vindication for the ideas behind making the film.