Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

(D.A. Pennebaker, UK, 1973): By the time D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of David Bowie’s final show in the 1973 ‘Ziggy Stardust’ tour was released ten years later, it already seemed ancient. For one thing, the film’s fuzzy, handheld, verité style was sharply at odds with the prevailing MTV aesthetic, which had effectively re-framed rock music as slickly laminated studio spectacle. Indeed, if most people were thinking Bowie at the time the movie appeared, the Bowie they were thinking of wasn’t Ziggy: it was the dapper blade cum blow-dried lounge lizard of the album rock radio-friendly ‘Let’s Dance’, the song that had finally sealed Bowie’s stateside star status and installed him firmly on the same Olympian firmament that provided stadium-sized swaggering room for Springsteen, Madonna, the Stones, Prince and U2.

So it seemed another David Bowie entirely who took the stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in July ’73. And it was. But for those of us who remembered the first North American apparitions of this irresistibly bizarre comic book character, from first appearances in the trash-rock pages of Circus, to late night appearances on In Concert and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, and to the music that had blown forth from basement speakers amplifying Hunky DoryAladdin Sane and (most pertinently) The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, the re-emergence of this Bowie was either an occasion for welcome reiteration of what had been or woeful regret at what no longer was. Either way, it was a movie out of time and lost in space.

In the moment, that is. Like so much in pop culture, and especially rock history, all Ziggy really needed to shake off the dust of a seemingly expired shelf life was time, the turning of the inevitable cycle where everything old and unfashionable became fascinating and urgent again, whereby the wheel simply spun full circle and it was clearer than ever that the David Bowie of ’73 had fallen to earth with one hell of a wham-bam-than-you-ma’am.

The movie had begun as a record-label notion to have Pennebaker, already a made figure in the rock documentary game — Dont Look BackMonterey Pop — film no more than half an hour of Bowie’s Hammersmith show, the idea being that the footage would be used for a still-undeveloped technology that would wed video with audio, a photo-MTV concept that remained ahead of its time but Bowie would eventually cash in on anyway, but not right here and now. But in following the final leg of the Ziggy Stardust tour, which had played to sold-out crowds of slammed-up teenagers across Europe in anticipation of a North American invasion that never transpired — at least not yet — Pennebaker was sufficiently electrified by the performances, featuring Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, Mick Woodsmansey on drums, and Bowie doing more costume changes than Marlene Dietrich on Broadway, that he decided to shoot the whole thing.

The backstory is as murky as the movie itself, but it seems Bowie himself was a little lukewarm on the idea, which might account for his air of calm but resolute detachment in the movie’s few backstage scenes. (For Pennebaker, this must have seemed like Dont Look Back‘s Dylan in reverse: a man more revealing of himself on stage than off, and more compelling as persona than person.) It’s also unclear just how prepared anyone was for the concert’s climactic showstopper, in which Bowie announced the band’s retirement from performing just before launching into ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.’ The band itself, exhausted after eighteen months of frenzied touring and chafing at the limelight hogging of Bowie, claimed to have no idea this was their final night of regular employment. The crucial music paper NME claimed to know in advance, and had its ‘Bowie Quits’ headline set and ready to go. Pennebaker himself has alternately claimed surprise and prior knowledge, and Bowie, in his inimitably plastic fashion, tended to change the story every time he told it.

But this is how legends are made, and the legend stuck: Bowie abruptly announced “the last show we’ll ever do”, and pandemonium ensued. A brilliant move on the preternaturally image-attuned artist’s part, in no small part because it was so deliciously ambiguous: was it the Ziggy persona he was laying to permanent rest? Or Bowie himself? And so, just on the verge of probable expiration himself, at least as a marketable concept, Bowie effectively re-booted his own viability as celebrity, pop star, news item and man to keep watching. Which was the point: don’t blink or look away, or you might miss something. This was Bowie’s genius, or at least part of it. There was also that music.

The performance that night, although later declared only so-so by Ronson and Bowie, and not apparently contradicted by the film at the time — which was shot without proper lighting, preparation, audio equipment and coverage — captures Bowie and his band at the peak of their trash-glam powers, and is now more compelling than ever as proof that nothing had rocked quite like Ziggy and the mock Spiders in the moment, or that Bowie was almost single-handedly re-setting the rock star playbook. Delving deeply into the previous three years’ repertoire — the path to Ziggy and Aladdin just beyond — the set-list is almost insanely satisfying and essential, not to mention carefully balanced between precision-performance costume-change ops and extended jams — a fourteen minute ‘Width of a Circle’ that clarifies why Ronson had nearly as avid a fanbase as the frontman himself — and ultimately captured by Pennebaker not as a form of meticulously pre-planned rock ‘n’ roll spectacle but as an explosive, unfolding and on-the-ground event. The camera seems constantly challenged to just keep up with the band and what it’s doing, and the paucity of proper lighting ensures that every single pop of colour and spotlight explosion registers as a kind of sensory assault.

In full glam regalia, Bowie seems to emerge in and out of darkness like a series of projected cartoon images, and the multiple cameras stalking the fan-packed floors, only capturing their quarry when the stage lights flash on the frenzy beyond the footlights, provide a record of the performance’s hysterical impact — not to mention Bowie’s fleeting status as teenybopper sensation — that’s as jolting as a wet finger in a socket. This is Bowie as live, intense, raw and immediate as we’d ever see him, and it says something that the artist himself never warmed to the movie nor seemed particularly pleased even by its belated release. Partly, one presumes, because he’d moved on, and partly, one may also presume, because it represented a moment when his control over the package was something less than total. But it also says suggests something else that, watched today, especially following Bowie’s death and the inevitable deluge of reverential rock ‘n’ roll mythologizing that followed it, that Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars now seems more essential and exciting than it perhaps ever was, and that’s precisely because it reminds us of a time, a context and a process in which David Bowie became himself, or at least the version that seemed to fit the moment. (Warner)