It’s 1971 and Bowie is spending his first night in the United States in the Silver Spring home of a National Bohemian beer executive named Marty Oberman and his wife, Augusta.
“This movie wouldn’t have happened if that photo hadn’t appeared all over the world,” said their son Michael Oberman, who is also in the photo, sitting at the far end of the couch.
The movie is a new Bowie biopic called “Stardust.” Oberman worries that the film conjures an overly fictionalized story out of that picture and the third person sitting on the sofa: Michael’s brother, Ron.
When the picture was taken — Jan. 27, 1971 — Ron was director of publicity for Bowie’s label, Mercury Records. He helped push Bowie’s career in the States. Bowie said he wanted to meet a typical American family, so after the Obermans picked him up at Dulles International Airport, they took him home.
Bowie didn’t perform on that 1971 trip, but the sojourn was a turning point in his career. Ron Oberman introduced him to figures in the U.S. music industry and exposed him to new music, including that of a quirky psychobilly artist called the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, part of whose moniker would wind up in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona.
Before joining Mercury, Ron had worked at the Washington Evening Star, writing profiles of musicians, a position Michael took over when Ron went to the business side of music. Ron Oberman died last year after suffering for several years from frontotemporal dementia.
After Bowie’s death in 2016, Michael Oberman shared that goofy photo online. It went viral. Last year he heard that a movie was being made about Bowie’s 1971 U.S. trip — and that his brother was a major character.
Michael Oberman said he exchanged emails with a producer at London-based Salon Pictures, but by the time he spoke to the director the film had been shot. And Michael was already having misgivings.
For starters, comic Marc Maron was cast as Ron Oberman. Maron is in his mid-50s. In 1971, Ron was what Bowie might have called a young American: 27.
Then this spring, a brief clip from “Stardust” was released online. It shows Maron-as-Ron with Johnny Flynn as David Bowie. The Ron character drops a couple of F-bombs.
Said Michael: “In my entire life I never heard my brother say one curse word, nothing, not even ‘damn.’ ”
What’s more, “Stardust” revolves around a Bowie/Oberman road trip across the United States. In reality, the two met in only a few major cities, to which Bowie had flown.
“I don’t have a problem fictionalizing it into a buddy road trip. That’s fine. But don’t portray my brother as being this crass, jive-talking publicist,” Michael Oberman said. “It’s been heartbreaking to me to see that two-minute trailer and think about the Ron Oberman I grew up with and knew.”
Michael, 73, said he’s waiting to see the whole movie — no release date has been announced — before deciding if he has any legal recourse.
I reached out to Salon Pictures but didn’t get a response. The film’s director, Gabriel Range, discussed the liberties taken in an interview with Screen Daily.
“The film is very much grounded in fact, but we have taken a little bit of license in terms of how some elements of the story are handled,” Range told interviewer Stuart Kemp. “A lot of the conversations are imagined, and we created composite characters for some of the roles to build an engaging narrative to wrap his world around.”
We’ve become accustomed to movies stretching the truth. Reality doesn’t always fit easily into a tidy, watchable 90 minutes.
Later this year, Michael Oberman’s book, “Fast Forward, Play and Rewind,” will be published. It’s about his time in the music business — both as a journalist and as a manager of bands such as Claude Jones and the Rosslyn Mountain Boys. He’ll have a chapter on Bowie’s sleepover.
He remembers that the family went to dinner at Emerson’s, a Silver Spring steak house. Later, he took Bowie, then 24, to a party at his house in Takoma Park with members of a band he managed, Sky Cobb.
They smoked marijuana from a bong, a weed-smoking apparatus Oberman says Bowie had never seen before. The members of Sky Cobb were unimpressed with Bowie and pretty much ignored him.
“Markus Cuff, the drummer, ended up leaving Sky Cobb to become drummer in Emmylou Harris’s band,” Oberman said. “He’s now the premier tattoo photographer in Los Angeles. To this day he kicks himself for being rude to Bowie.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly