Since the turn of the millennium there’s been an uptick in the number of music biopics. In the last fifteen years alone we’ve seen movies variously dramatizing the lives, careers and legends of Dylan, Lennon, Hendrix, James Brown, Brian Jones, The Runaways, Queen, Elton John, Tim Buckley, Hank Williams, Brian Wilson, Nico, Notorious B.I.G., Helen Reddy, N.W.A., Ian Curtis and more. It’s tricky terrain, particularly when the artist or artists involved are still very much alive in the popular memory—and in some cases still very much alive, period.
Several of these films more or less disappeared without a trace; picky fans might argue that’s because they betrayed their subjects. Yet the worst, most cliche-ridden, pandering effort in the whole bunch (Bohemian Rhapsody) was by far the biggest hit. Go figure.
Almost as painful is the new Stardust, which opens with the arch and skittish disclaimer that “What follows is (mostly) fiction,” yet straightfacedly attempts to portray David Bowie in the months before creation of his breakthrough Ziggy Stardust persona. Even more than with most superstars, it’s a fool’s errand to try re-capturing Bowie’s particular magnetism—homage is one thing, but any direct imitation is bound to fall desperately short. Nonetheless, the extent to which Stardust fails in this regard is so spectacular it almost compels a kind of trainwreck fascination.
On YouTube you can easily find footage of Bowie nee Davy Jones at 17 in 1964, leading a group of British boys defending their right to wear long hair on a BBC talk show. He’s already poised, articulate, relaxed in the public spotlight—so it’s bizarre that for the purposes of Stardust’s simplistic imagining, the adult Bowie seven years later (at which point he was already a showbiz veteran) is awkward, insecure, effete, tongue-tied, undisciplined, taking himself too serious and too lightly at the wrong times. He’s had a hit in “Space Oddity,” but otherwise is floundering to find a fanbase and salable image, while contemporaries like frenemy Marc Bolan (played bitchily by James Cade) soar up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
Henpecked by pregnant wife Angie (an even bitchier Jena Malone), with his third album The Man Who Sold the World flopping, he improbably hopes to conquer the US market—unlikely, at that peak cock-rock moment, for a disc whose cover features the androgynous artist reclining on a divan in a “man’s dress.”
Much of Gabriel Range’s film is a sort of buddy road movie, with the musician dismayed to discover his promised high-profile first trip to America will be in fact an under-radar slog, as he’s arrived without the basic paperwork to legally perform a concert tour. Instead, he’s stuck playing inappropriate private gigs at which he’s ignored, bungling interviews at the few radio stations and other venues that will have him, in the company of the sole Mercury Records staffer (Marc Maron) who believes in him.
That publicist sees Bowie’s talent and potential. But we don’t—we can’t, since the filmmakers did not acquire music rights from the Bowie estate. So star Johnny Flynn (a South Africa-born actor who also leads his own band) is only heard singing covers of other artist’s songs, in a voice that’s not bad in itself, but nothing like David Bowie’s.
Stardust is not a good movie, but you can’t blame its design personnel: The early ’70s atmosphere is authentic enough, and Flynn is certainly dressed, coiffed and made up in immaculate imitation of David Bowie circa 1971. The problem is, that just makes him look like a bad Faux-y Bowie at a costume party circa 1974; in this semi-drag, he resembles no one so much as Eddie Izzard. Bowie had an extraordinary, gender-blurringly beautiful face that his toying with makeup and costume only heightened. It wouldn’t work for most people, and on Flynn, such getups look…well, hideous. I’m sure he’s an attractive-enough fellow otherwise, but this role turns into a noose by which he hangs himself.
Given a complete miss on songs, voice, and looks, just what are we meant to glean about David Bowie here? That he simply had singular star quality? That might work if Flynn or the film communicated it, even in a form different from the original model’s. But…well, let’s just say this movie would be more credible if it were The Jobriath Story, chronicling why that American Bowie manque was a complete critical and commercial failure a couple years after the events of this film. (Which is not to say the 2012 documentary Jobriath A.D. isn’t well worth seeing.)
Oh, about that Ziggy Stardust thing: It’s posited here that Bowie came up with the persona after witnessing his schizophrenic half-brother Terry Burns (Derek Moran) doing drama therapy in an institution. Terry did exist, and mental illness did recur on Bowie’s mother’s side of the family, but otherwise this is as reductively speculative as everything else in Stardust. The real David Bowie died in early 2016 (just days before Trump’s inauguration), and of all the things one is glad he didn’t live to witness, this movie is near the top of the list. It’s playing available theaters as of Wed/25.
Another historical fiction about the inspiration and machinery behind popular music is August Wilson’s 1982 play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which has just been filmed by famed stage director George C. Wolfe. It likewise opens at available theaters this Wed/25, before premiering on Netflix Dec. 18.
Wilson’s plays aren’t natural screen material—they’re talky, often confined to a single setting, and can’t be very effectively “opened up” for a more visually active medium. But they do provide powerhouse opportunities for actors. And not only does Wolfe get superb work from a first-rate cast here, he and adaptor Ruben Santiago-Hudson do manage to make the material as cinematically alive as possible without harming the integrity of the original work.
Ma Rainey (played here by Viola Davis, who was also in Denzel Washington’s excellent movie of Wilson’s Fences four years ago) was a pioneering real-life blues singer who greatly popularized that idiom, though today she’s less well-remembered than many artists who followed in her footsteps. We first see her performing at a 1927 tent show in her native Georgia, then surrounded by chorines on a glossy urban venue’s stage.
But the story primarily focuses on a recording session in a sweltering Chicago basement studio, where she arrives fashionably late with her entourage of a much-younger female lover (Taylour Paige as Dussie Mae) and stuttering nephew (Dusan Brown’s Sylvester). She won’t be ordered around by anyone—certainly not the white label rep (Jeremy Shamos) or sneering studio engineer (Jonny Coyne) her records have greatly enriched. Nor cocky young trumpeter Levee (the late Chadwick Boseman), whose playing and arrangements are more in tune with new trends towards uptempo dance music. Ma Rainey, her garishly over-painted face and stooping posture a roadmap of past abuses she’ll no longer tolerate, is going to do everything her way, or not at all.
The play and this interpretation at times joyously communicate music’s ability to release one from all cares. But this particular music is born of pain, and in a society still decades from the Civil Rights Movement, everyone here is acutely aware of the racial divide’s cruel demarkations. Ma Rainey has carved out a success story for herself within those limitations, and refuses to be pushed outside that comfort zone. Her backing musicians (Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, Michael Potts) aren’t going to rock her or anyone else’s boat when they’ve got a good-enough thing going. Only Levee is young, brilliant, and egotistically blind enough to think he can make his own rules. During this long afternoon’s recording session, that vain hope stirs tensions doomed to end in tragic self-defeat.
Trimmed to a brisk 90-odd minutes (a full hour shorter than the play), Wolfe’s film is beautifully crafted and emotionally calibrated, its lush period look belied by the often blunt realities depicted. Much attention is sure to focus on the last performance of Boseman, who died three months ago from colon cancer at age 43 (and credibly plays someone probably half that age here). He’s terrific in this story’s most dynamic role, adding yet another indelible portrayal to a regrettably too-short roster of screen roles that already included not just Black Panther but Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown.
Davis, a long way from the quiet dignity of her figure in Fences (and many other, more characteristic roles), digs into Ma Rainey’s sometimes not-so-quiet fury. She’s obstinate, foul-mouthed, bullying, all necessary survival mechanisms hardened into one immovable object. Yet by the end we see that this isn’t just self-interest at work; she has a whole mini-industry of dependents to protect. (In a clever stroke, the filmmakers add a wordless postscript that spells out just why she’s right to be so protectively suspicious: An all-white, Paul Whiteman-esque “jazz band” is shown flavorlessly recording their own ripoff of “the blues,” no doubt to far greater financial reward than its African-American originators.)
The entire cast is great, but special mention should be made of Colman Domingo, who was a Bay Area stage actor before he made it big on Broadway, then on Fear of the Walking Dead. His trombonist Cutler is the band’s second-in-command, after Ma herself, as well as the person who takes greatest umbrage at Levee’s perceived insubordination and unasked-for new ideas. Cutler has found a sweet spot between submission and assistant-management; this upstart’s refusal to acknowledge hierarchy or pay dues offends him in ways he can’t even articulate. It’s the play’s subtlest commentary on the crippling effect of internalized racism, and Domingo makes his character as poignant as he is alternately puffed-up, cowardly, and plain wrong-headed. Cutler can’t see the future when it’s standing in front of him. But worse still, Levee can’t see that the world isn’t ready yet for the future he represents.