Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)



          Like most concert films, the David Bowie picture Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars can be appraised on at least three levels—cinematic value, historical interest, and musical merit. As a film, it’s nothing special, with veteran rock-doc helmer D.A. Pennebaker operating on autopilot as he captures the final performance of Bowie in his flamboyant stage persona as space-alien rocker Ziggy Stardust. In terms of historical interest, Ziggy Stardust scores a bit higher, since it preserves Bowie at the apex of his breakout period, performing early hits including “Space Oddity” and “Suffragette City” while wearing androgynous clothes and sporting a blood-red mullet. Musically, however, Ziggy Stardust is terrific. Watching Bowie and his tight band, led by guitar hero Mick Ronson, blast through “Changes” and covers of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “White Light/White Heat” is, like the saying goes, as close as one can get to being there.
          Bowie had been working the Ziggy persona for a couple of years by the time he and his band, the Spiders from Mars, hit the stage of London’s Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973. Manipulating gender signifiers and playing games with reality had done wonders for the singer’s career, elevating him to the status of supernatural pop-culture shaman. Yet Bowie was ready to hang up the glam-rock affectations of elaborate makeup and flamboyant costumes. Thus, Pennebaker found just the right moment to train his cameras on the singer’s tour. (According to the lore around the film, Pennebaker didn’t know at the beginning of the project that Bowie was planning to end his Ziggy period at the end of the Odeon show.) Had Pennebaker gained greater access, Ziggy Stardust could easily have become a definitive rock chronicle. Instead, the only bits in the film that take place offstage are inconsequential interludes of stylists helping Bowie into his costumes, as well as a brief montage of shots featuring fans waiting outside the theater. Even the fleeting moment when former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr shows up to hang backstage with Bowie fails to make an impression.
          Worse, the actual filming of the concert scenes is merely okay. Clearly battling with problems related to low lighting inside the theater, Pennebaker often employs shots that are grainy and/or underexposed; he also has so few camera positions that the editing feels repetitive and unimaginative. Nonetheless, Bowie’s dynamic stagecraft and vibrant music save the day. Sometimes, Bowie slips into art-rock affectation (e.g., his extended mime routine), but at other times he rips through numbers including “All the Young Dudes” and “Watch that Man” with an impressive combination of ferocity and precision. In lieu of a better document for this key phase of Bowie’s career, Ziggy Stardust communicates the power of his early-’70s live performances adequately.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: FUNKY

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