David Bowie’s first US tour came with a design flaw, dramatised in Gabriel Range’s bootleg biopic Stardust. Touching down in 1971, the singer approaches Immigration like an alien in Mary Jane heels. Even starmen need a work visa, however. The outcome is that while the unknown Bowie is allowed into America, he is banned from playing actual concerts. A snag, but less of one for the film than you might think. Made without the approval of the Bowie estate and unable to use his songs, the movie becomes a meta echo — borderline illicit, filled with chat instead of tunes.

This Is Spinal Tap is brought to mind even before the vacuum cleaner sales conference. Star Johnny Flynn shares a hairpiece with Tap frontman David St Hubbins, but in place of PR Artie Fufkin, Bowie is chaperoned by publicist Ron Oberman (Marc Maron). The pair take to the road in Oberman’s station wagon, his strange English cargo ferried to painful interviews on Midwestern radio and LA parties where he sings Jacques Brel while guests ignore him.

Who is meant to pay attention to Stardust? Fans may be put off by the family’s dislike of the film, but fans are the ones it addresses. There is no wider point beyond Bowie’s genius — the premise that his American calamity was not just a comedy of errors, but where he cracked the secret of rock divinity. Next stop: Ziggy Stardust. The performer is the message, he announces. Intriguing but nervously handled is another layer of personal history, the schizophrenia of Bowie’s half brother and mentor, Terry Burns (Derek Moran).

But the clunk of it all is deafening, the dialogue booby-trapped. Even the capable Jena Malone struggles as a jagged Angie Bowie: “Come on David, Marc Bolan’s here,” she urges, as we cut to another bad wig. If the performer is the message, decoding the casting of Flynn is simple: a rising star with a parallel musical career. The problem stares us in the face — Flynn’s face, altogether too hale-and-hearty to play the south London urchin. But his charisma keeps the thing alive, and his sincerity might be its saving grace. Not even David Bowie found becoming David Bowie easy.


On digital platforms in the UK from January 15