Danny Boyle has always tried to integrate music into his work whenever possible. However, his plans for David Bowie hit a stumbling block after the man himself scoffed at the notion of taking his story to the screen. After seeing the romantic comedy Yesterday, his rejection proved to be a clever move.
The aforementioned movie centres around a struggling singer who is the only person in the world who remembers the songs of The Beatles. With this skill, and after a freak storm, the lead character ends up becoming the biggest artist on the planet. In truth, it’s as ludicrous as it sounds. Bowie’s reluctance to hand over his music to Boyle managed to keep him in charge of his own narrative, dodging a cringe-inducing retelling in the process.
There’s something profoundly un-rock ‘n’ roll about a musical, no matter who the subject of the story is. While Bowie’s music was theatrical, that isn’t to say that his story would necessarily translate into the format. However, the rejection hurt Boyle deeply, later saying it left him and scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce “in grief”.
“Frank and I were working on a David Bowie script,” Boyle told Empire Magazine in 2019. “I talked to Bowie about it at the Olympic Games and went to see him. He didn’t really want to do anything at that time and I didn’t really understand why.”
“It wasn’t clear to anybody he was ill,” added Boyle. “All he was saying was, ‘I don’t want to do anything in the past. I am working on stuff for the future’.”
The chances of the project being reignited are slim, especially considering Bowie didn’t permit it when he was alive. The right thing to do, of course, would be to grant his wish and make sure that script never sees the light of day. “I’m not sure if we’ll come back to it,” Boyle admitted. “But he is a particular British person I’d want to study. Frank’s was a wonderful script about the relationship between him and Iggy Pop.”
Of course, Bowie’s relationship with Iggy Pop and those heady days in Berlin pique one’s interest more than almost every blockbuster. However, it’s a delicate story involving real people. For it to be completed, it would have needed precision and care. Without the backing of ‘The Starman’, it simply couldn’t have worked.
In fairness to Boyle, at least the director realised that you couldn’t make a biopic about David Bowie without using the songs of David Bowie, which didn’t prevent the makers of the 2020 film Stardust from going ahead with their own project. The production attempted to circumvent the major issue by having Johnny Flynn, who portrayed Bowie, cover songs that Bowie also covered during the Ziggy Stardust era and was unsurprisingly met with unfavourable reviews with fans feeling shortchanged. Furthermore, it took less than $10,000 at the box office, which says a lot about the indifference towards the film.
Stories such as Bowie’s exist within the music and through the whispered tales from confidantes. Not every tale needs to be made into a biopic, and a project of this sort runs the risk of reducing the alluring mystique of Bowie.