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Johnny Flynn: Ziggy Stardust origin story is the only Bowie film I would make

Flynn plays David Bowie as he became Ziggy in Stardust. He says it’s a film that centres the human story over Bowie’s iconic musical legacy

Five years ago this week, David Bowie died. Five years. That’s all we’ve had without him. And by any standards, it’s not been a good five years, beginning with the deaths of beloved celebrities from Victoria Wood to Prince, Muhammad Ali, George Michael and Carrie Fisher, spanning Donald Trump’s catastrophic presidency and ending with the world in the grips of a global pandemic. Some might mention Brexit here.

Is it disingenuous to ask whether new film Stardust – starring Johnny Flynn and set during Bowie’s US tour in 1971, during which he pieced together components that would make up the Ziggy Stardust persona – could mark the end of five years of crying? Probably. But we do it anyway.

“Oh, I fucking hope so,” says Flynn, via Zoom from his London home. “David Bowie knew when to get out, didn’t he? His antenna was polished.”

For me, it’s a really dark little film, that’s what we were making

Flynn came to prominence as a singer in the late Noughties, early albums showcasing the anti-folk sound he’s since honed, with the lilting theme to Detectorists his best-known song. And a stage role in Jerusalem opposite Mark Rylance and Detectorists creator Mackenzie Crook was followed by high-profile acting roles – from comedy Lovesick and thriller Beast to recent adaptations of Vanity Fair (ITV) and Les Misérables (BBC One).

Five films. That’s how Flynn spent 2019. He’s set to be all over our screens for the foreseeable future after making five films of such rich variety and scope. First came a brilliant, bottom-baring Mr Knightley in the playful, successful adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Now, come two roles that could not be more contrasting.

First is Stardust. And the 37-year-old is quick to address the furore that accompanied the trailer, which was widely disparaged – not least for the film not featuring any David Bowie music. But Stardust, Flynn says, should be viewed more as an origin story than a blockbuster biopic in the style of Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman.

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“That’s how I see it, definitely,” he says. “It is certainly not a jukebox musical or sprawling biopic. It’s only a couple of weeks of his life. And that’s the only film about him that I would have wanted to make. If you want to see the hits, you would be better off watching the real thing or listening to his records. This is his beginnings as Ziggy. Some of the marketing around the film was really unhelpful. The trailer looked like it was trying to be [a big biopic] with the bombastic music. For me, it’s a really dark little film, that’s what we were making. It’s a tiny moment in time.”

As Flynn hit his teens, David Bowie was celebrating his 50th birthday with a concert at Madison Square Garden while experimenting with industrial, drum’n’bass and jungle music. Though not at the popular height he’d scaled previously and would reach again before his death, he remained influential.

“Me and David? I discovered him as a teenager. I remember getting a compilation record – that sounds so naff, when your first album is a compilation, but there was a 69-74 Best Of album that had all the Ziggy stuff, early recordings and Space Oddity. Then I started getting really into his albums. I loved him. I still do. And I listen to him a lot,” says Flynn.

Even now? Even after a deep dive into Bowie, his influence and his influences for Stardust?

“I’ve just started again. I went through a phase where I couldn’t because I went quite hard into the research and had to take a break,” he continues.

This film focuses on how he slams things together to become something completely new

“My nine-year-old has seen the film – the others are a bit young – but we’ve started putting the records on and he loves the artwork, he’s got a David Bowie poster. He was in Canada when we were filming and saw me in the Ziggy wig so it was interesting seeing him process this incredible artist at that age, somebody who’s so innovative.

“When I was just getting into music, he had become an elder of the mainstream. But he was always championing interesting bands. I loved Pixies, they were an important band for me, so I probably first saw him talking about Pixies. That’s where I went, ‘oh, he’s different’. You won’t get Bob Dylan or Neil Young doing that. He was a geeky fan about music all his life.”

Not that you can hear or see much Bowie influence on Flynn’s music career.

“We’re really philosophically different,” says Flynn. “We have a different aesthetic. There’s nobody like David Bowie, but where he was about creating personas for the songs to be delivered by, I’ve always tried to strip away artifice and go into this authentic self.

“This film focuses on the moment he worked out how to create this guise through which to tell his stories and be free, how he slams things together to become something completely new.”

If Flynn dug deep for Stardust, did he go deeper for The Dig – a Netflix film about the excavation of Anglo-Saxon treasure at Sutton Hoo in 1939?

“I’m obsessed with history and, funnily enough, being part of Detectorists made me interested in what is beneath the soil, all around us,” he says. “We’ve got a metal detector my son uses in the park and had been at the British Museum looking at the Sutton Hoo find the day I got the call to be in the film.

“I was obsessed with the story and working with Ralph [Fiennes], Carey [Mulligan] and Lily [James] was a privilege. The film really moving, I find. I can’t stop crying when I watch it.”

Flynn spent much of 2020 home-schooling his three children and creating music, when he wasn’t promoting films.

“The chance to be at home has been really good, albeit stressful at times,” he says. “That first bit of the year was really intense. It felt like juggling with too many balls. And thank god the playgrounds opened again. No playgrounds? That was a disaster.

“But I’ve also been writing songs and collaborating with people over a distance.”

One of these features words by beloved British nature writer Robert Macfarlane.

“We’ve written 10 or 11 songs and I’m starting the final mixes soon. So that’s cool. I didn’t know I’d be doing that and it has carried me through in a big way. Robert is a beautiful soul and a dear friend.”

Flynn has also been fundraising by playing free online shows.

“Putting out livestreams is a poor substitute for being in a room with people, but in the absence of live music… I felt lucky I can afford to do that because I had a good year in 2019. I was like, right, I’m OK, I’m in this position where I can help throw people’s attention and money at things. The community spirit coming through everywhere has been really encouraging.”

Stardust will be on digital platforms from January 15. The Dig is on Netflix from January 29.