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Johnny Flynn: 'Stardust' shows David Bowie's struggles

Johnny Flynn: 'Stardust' shows David Bowie's struggles
Johnny Flynn portrays David Bowie in the movie "Stardust." Photo courtesy of IFC Films

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 25 (UPI) -- For five decades of music, David Bowie cultivated an enigmatic persona, employing gender fluidity and flamboyant performances. The new film, Stardust, starring Johnny Flynn as Bowie, focuses on a near disastrous tour Bowie embarked on in the United States in 1971.

"He really hasn't figured himself out yet," Flynn told UPI in a recent Zoom interview from his music studio in Hackney, East London. "It's very far from the David that we know."

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In the film, Bowie's publicist, Ron Oberman (Marc Maron), complains that the singer's 1970 album, The Man Who Sold the World, only launched one hit single, the title track. With other singles bombing, Oberman struggled to book Bowie gigs and felt Bowie needed to prove himself a successful live performer to make up for lagging record sales.

Flynn said he read several biographies of Bowie, including Paul Morley's The Age of Bowie, and listened to interviews Bowie gave during that 1971 tour. To Flynn, Stardust is accurate in its depiction of a Bowie unsure of himself.

"He seems so fragile, so like the wind would blow him away," Flynn said of the interviews he heard. "He really hasn't figured himself out yet."

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Flynn also is a musician. As the singer/songwriter of Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit, Flynn has been releasing his own albums since 2008. He performs in Stardust, but does not sing any of Bowie's songs.

"It wasn't going to be a jukebox musical where you just fast forward through the scenes and get to the songs," Flynn said. "We have the records for the music and who wants to hear me singing songs?"

Instead, Flynn's Bowie covers songs by Jacques Beri, who Flynn confirms was among the artists Bowie covered in his 1971 shows. Flynn said the failure of Bowie's own music weighed on him.

"He was running around from his own material at this point," Flynn said.

Flynn said that while Bowie was struggling to find his own persona, he drew on artists like Anthony Newly, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in his performances.

"He's like a mimic," Flynn said. "I get a chance to really be quite free with these songs. Also, I didn't want my performance to be an impression of David."

Casting a musician as Bowie was important to writer-director Gabriel Range, Flynn said. Flynn recalled meeting Range after a performance of the play Hangmen, in which Flynn starred in 2017. That's when Range sold Flynn on the idea of focusing on Bowie's 1971 tour.

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Flynn said that he also related to Bowie at the stage in his career Stardust depicts. Bowie plays small bars where the patrons don't listen to the show. Flynn said he also had to pay his dues as a performer.

"I know what it is to walk into a room and nobody knows who you are," Flynn said. "Sometimes that overwhelms you, and by the end, you haven't gotten anywhere. Still nobody has looked over at you while you're singing quietly at the bar."

In between performances, Stardust also depicts Bowie experimenting with wardrobe. It would frustrate Oberman when Bowie would focus on wearing women's clothes during interviews intended to promote his music. However, the blouses and high-heeled shoes Bowie wears in the film hint at the flamboyant wardrobe he would employ later in his career.

"It just really helped me feel how he would have felt rocking up in middle America in 1971 wearing a dress," Flynn said. "It was so good for me as an actor, and having to have that confidence to pull some of that stuff off."

Flynn feels the period Stardust covers makes Bowie more universal. Flynn considers Bowie's rock star status mythic, and hopes viewers will see that even heroes have doubts.

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"I think it's exciting to talk about somebody before that point where they found their voice because it's where we all are," Flynn said. "It's relatable and it's inspiring to know that we all struggle, and he had some big struggles that we know of."

That separates Stardust from musician biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, which followed Freddie Mercury and Elton John, respectively, to their greatest heights. Flynn likens his film more to the Joy Division film, Control, or the John Lennon film, Nowhere Boy.

"This is a different film to the one people might expect, and it's a very small film," Flynn said. "It's a tiny moment in time."

Stardust is in theaters and on video-on-demand Wednesday.

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