Culture Trips

A Bowie biopic with no Bowie songs? Stardust isn’t the first to try | Film

Credit to new film Stardust for even attempting to recount how David Bowie became Ziggy Stardust without using any of his music, including, er, Ziggy Stardust. Denied access to the Bowie back catalogue, most film-makers would have given up. Danny Boyle did, ditching his “wonderful” biopic in 2012 after Bowie turned him down.

Stardust finds some creative workarounds. Such as framing the story round a trip to the US where the struggling singer (a miscast Johnny Flynn) is forbidden from performing (he doesn’t have the right paperwork). On the rare occasions this Bowie does sing, it is strictly cover versions (Jacques Brel, Scott Walker, the Yardbirds). He goes to a Velvet Underground gig and listens to the Stooges on the radio, but we don’t hear their music, either. As a result, Stardust resembles a bizarre knock-off – like that notorious Turkish version of Star Wars from the early 80s.

Stardust is an extreme example, but much of the art we see in movies is equally fake. While the “official” biopic bandwagon trundles along with hits such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocket Man, many unofficial stories go down the Stardust route. Like the Beatles movie Backbeat or the Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is By My Side, neither of which featured the artists’ own music. Or, more to the point, Todd Haynes’s glam rock odyssey Velvet Goldmine, which was intended to feature several Bowie tunes until, again, Bowie withdrew permission. Haynes retooled the story to make the character less Bowie-like.

It is not just a music thing: art and other intellectual property is invariably owned by estates, whose permission must be obtained or palms greased. Even the artist who did Mike Tyson’s face tattoo successfully sued the makers of The Hangover: Part II for using it. Anthony Hopkins’s Surviving Picasso contained no actual Picassos. Likewise, Basquiat featured no works by Jean-Michel Basquiat; instead, director Julian Schnabel oversaw the production of some knock-offs (the movie also features a knock-off Andy Warhol, played by a certain David Bowie).

This is also why you didn’t hear Dr Martin Luther King say “I have a dream” in the movie Selma. The King estate had already licensed the rights to Steven Spielberg, who was planning his own MLK movie. Instead, Selma crafted its own oratory “in the style of” King, which was delivered so persuasively by David Oyelowo we barely registered the subterfuge.

Does it matter? There was a storm in a teacup last year when culture secretary Oliver Dowden discovered that The Crown was – gasp! – not wholly historically accurate. The Crown is no more “official” than Stardust. It is fakery, and most of us are fine with that. Distinguishing between genuine fakery and fake fakery is splitting hairs. The only thing that matters is how well it’s done.

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