Film

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1973)

Elbert Ventura

Ziggy falters as a visual experience, a conspicuous failing considering its spectacle-obsessed subject.


Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Cast: as themselves): David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Mick Woodmansey, Trevor Bolder
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Cowboy Pictures
First date: 1973
US Release Date: 2002-07-10

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."

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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