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Ziggy Stardust and the
Spiders from Mars (1973)
David Bowie has always
enjoyed an inflated reputation based primarily on being there first. He anticipated, and
arguably initiated, the trend toward increased theatricality in live rock performance.
This made him extraordinarily successful throughout the 1970s, most notably in the
beginning of the decade, when he performed as Ziggy Stardust.
The Stardust character was an androgynous (note the influence of Bowie's
scarlet mullet on contemporary lesbian hair-fashion) outer-space rock star, dressed in
tight clothing by Japanese designer Kansai. The songs on Bowie's album The Rise And
Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars told his story, and the concerts he
played as Ziggy sold out across England. This was attributable to the hothouse atmosphere
of the British music scene, which is centrally governed from London (whatever London
likes, it hypes, and the outlying cities acquiesce). But Bowie/Ziggy also made it big in
America, a substantially greater achievement.
It was musical quality that put Bowie over the top in the Ziggy years.
The Spiders were a great rock band, led by lead guitarist Mick Ronson. The tunes on the
Stardust album were some of the best Bowie would ever release. Indeed, once the band
dissolved, following the concert documented in this film, he flailed about quite a bit,
artistically. Bowie spent the rest of the 1970s, and much of the 1980s, surrounded by
high-end sidemen, never again achieving the musical power that can only be found within an
organic rock band.
This film records the final Ziggy Stardust concert, performed in London.
It's a solid rock show, mixing material from the Ziggy album with a few earlier songs.
There are a few moments of backstage ennui, every half-hour or so. Bowie flops in a corner
of the dressing room, smoking and chatting distractedly with then-wife Angie or with Ringo
Starr, before donning a new costume and heading back to the stage. During one of these
interludes, Ronson takes an epic guitar solo of a type now impossible to essay, or
appreciate, in any non-ironic sense. That, not Bowie's makeup and pantomimes, is the true
relic of a bygone era.
The film was directed by D.A. Pennebaker, the most utilitarian of the
famous documentarians. He records the action without attaching any agenda to it; it's just
a job to him. A performance like this one offers many opportunities to question the nature
of the performer-audience relationship, or a fan's investment in fiction (many listeners
in these years thought of Bowie as Ziggy, accepting his invention as reality), but
Pennebaker doesn't bother with any of them. The audience is barely shown at all. He's
interested in capturing a visually exciting rock concert, something which can admittedly
be a challenge.
What's surprising, viewing this film after reading innumerable magazine
articles looking back at the then-shocking theatricality of the Ziggy performances, is how
straightforward a rock show this actually is. Aside from Bowie's wardrobe, there's very
little of the spectacle that bands like Kiss and Alice Cooper would bring to American
arenas only a few years later. It's not the kind of overblown, Vegas-esque extravaganza so
many acts, from U2 to Britney Spears, take on the road these days. It's just a really good
rock concert. In 1973, that was enough.
- Phil Freeman