A messy smear of a movie, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is an intermittently kinetic immersion. D.A. Pennebaker’s film is a notably unfussy account of David Bowie’s 1973 concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon, a show that capped Bowie’s wildly successful Ziggy Stardust tour. The concert would eventually go down in the Bowie timeline as the “retirement gig,” when Bowie infamously announced that it would be the last time he and his band mates would appear on stage.
The announcement, of course, was a playful fabrication—a typical glam put-on. Within weeks, it would emerge that Bowie in fact had not committed rock and roll suicide, and that it was as his alien alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, that he made the declaration. And even that wasn’t all truth. In late November that year, Bowie would don the Ziggy get-up one more time for a TV special called “The 1980 Floor Show.”
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
as themselves): David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Mick Woodmansey, Trevor Bolder
US theatrical: 10 Jul 2002
Pennebaker’s celluloid Ziggy would likewise initially end up on the tube, in a truncated, 60-minute version shown on ABC in 1974. Troubles with mixing and roping the participants, including Bowie himself, into polishing up the piece pushed back the movie’s theatrical premiere by another nine years. When it finally opened in 1983, audiences suffered through a murky movie, a poor facsimile of the real thing.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, the album that made the ascending rock star into a glam god, the movie has been spruced up and rolled out in platform release. The makeover notwithstanding, the film is still a tarnished document. Shot on 16mm by Pennebaker, the movie benefits from the remastering of the sound, with most of the overdubs added to the 1983 release removed. Still, Ziggy falters as a visual experience, a conspicuous failing considering its spectacle-obsessed subject.
Like most concert docs, Ziggy occasionally shines—but only from the reflected light of its star. Vamping it up with breezy abandon, Bowie puts on a performance that crackles with energy and hedonism. All angles and poses, he looks like a Cubist dream (he could’ve jumped out of Picasso’s Three Musicians). But while his youthful dynamism is still apparent, the yellowing effects of time do show. The febrile histrionics, once considered outlandish and groundbreaking, now seem amusingly quaint. At one point, Bowie does a pantomime on stage, pretending to be trapped behind glass. It’s a routine that could’ve easily been in This is Spinal Tap.
Ziggy may have played guitar, but Bowie swaggers through the first third of his act sans instrument, going from a blistering version of “Hang Onto Yourself” right through a medley of “Wild-eyed Boy From Freecloud,” “All the Young Dudes,” and “Oh You Pretty Things.” Throughout his strong if predictable set, numbers are punctuated by extravagant costume changes, some of which are made possible by Mick Ronson’s marathon (and borderline ridiculous) guitar solos. The rest of the show is filled with familiar hits (“Changes,” “Space Oddity”) and a handful of covers (including a rote version of the Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and a surprisingly good one of the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat”).
Before his final song, the grand “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” Bowie thanks the crowd and announces that it’s “the last show that we’ll ever do.” Because of its minimalist approach to its subject, the movie seems to downplay Bowie’s retirement announcement—which in retrospect seems just as well. Years later, Bowie disingenuously protested that the retirement line was his most misquoted ever. A master of the media as much as of his medium, Bowie always knew the career-boosting effect the right detonation could have, be it a retirement declaration or an impromptu “confession” of his gayness (which Bowie has since claimed was simply a “phase”). It’s not for nothing that Madonna was one of Bowie’s presenters at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996.
Not to knock Bowie off the pantheon, but there is something disappointing about his seemingly opportunistic appropriation of glam tropes—first brought to the spotlight by Marc Bolan and T. Rex—for the purposes of his career. “The first duty in life is to assume a pose,” Oscar Wilde’s dictum goes. What was a manifesto for some in the glam movement became a means to stardom for a careerist like Bowie. Todd Haynes’ underappreciated glam gloss, Velvet Goldmine, touches on this cynicism, positing Bowie (Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ Brian Slade) as the glitter icon who gave up the movement and music for mainstream acceptance in the gray 1980s. A love-hate valentine to Bowie, the movie sees glam as a utopian force, bringing homosexuality and gender-bending closer than ever to mainstream acceptance—only to fade and be left in the dust by its exemplar.
If Velvet Goldmine is a fan’s tribute to glam, Ziggy suffers from a fundamental disconnect in sensibilities. The problems go beneath the grainy, bleary surface. Simply put, the movie is a classic mismatch of aesthetics. On one side, you have Pennebaker, a vanguard of cinema verité documentary filmmaking. On the other is Bowie’s glitter flamboyance and theatricality. Watching one of the most electrifying performers in rock history—and for all his flaws, Bowie was that—Pennebaker and his cameras sit back and watch rather than let loose.
The best rock documentaries don’t just offer you the stage, but an entire world as well. What made Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back so memorable was the way it contextualized Bob Dylan for us. Filmed in 1965 amid Dylan’s transition from folkie to rocker, it caught Dylan in hotel rooms, at parties and back stage, offering a portrait at once revelatory and opaque. A glimpse of Ringo Starr in the dressing room and an appearance by Bowie’s gregarious wife, Angela, aside, Ziggy doesn’t evoke a sense of the performer’s life.
The lack of context muffles the impact of Bowie’s shape-shifting schtick. We’re left with a jittery, haphazard document of a show, with no sense of an overall visual design or intellectual approach. Hoping maybe to coast on Bowie’s energy, Pennebaker can’t hide the pointlessness of his project—it’s good as a time-capsule artifact (which may be enough for some) and little else. Like a flopped anecdote, Pennebaker’s disappointing movie can be shrugged off with one line: You had to be there.