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With: David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Trevor Bolder, Woody Woodmansey
Written by: n/a
Directed by: D.A. Pennebaker
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 90
Date: 12/01/1973
IMDB

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Revisiting the Golden Years

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm not a huge die-hard David Bowie fan, but his 1972 album The Riseand Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is one of myfavorite albums. Its eleven songs never seem to age; they're short,punchy, funny, sexy and alive.

Ironically, the songs from that album -- as performed in the 1973 concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which has been re-released this week at the Castro Theater -- have the least amount of zing.

Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, the film opens showing expectant fans lining up outside London's Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973. Cut to David Bowie in the makeup chair, getting a glam treatment of the type that Britney Spears probably goes through today. He sports a red-orange mullet and his face is made up to look even gaunter than it already is.

He will return to this room several times during the course of the film for costume changes (something else he and Britney have in common), while none other than Ringo Starr appears at one point as one of Bowie's backstage groupies.

Bowie takes the stage and launches into "Hang On to Yourself" and the "Ziggy Stardust" title track, and he seems bored. His lyrics trail behind the music by a couple seconds, and he attempts a kind of pathetic gesturing performance art to compensate. (And, yes, he even performs mime at one point.)

Things pick up a bit later on with his hit songs "Changes," "Space Oddity" and a moving Brian Eno tune called "My Death."

But the film seriously bogs down in the middle with two songs I'd never heard of called "Time" and "The Width of a Circle." Bowie and his three-member band drag them out with and endless arty solo. My brain drifted off to other thoughts for a while, so I can't be sure of the time, but it seemed like about 20 minutes.

Next, Bowie cryptically dedicates "to Mick" a rather lifeless version of the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together," which is probably not his fault because the song isn't that great to begin with.

The movie finally kicks into gear for the last three songs, "Suffragette City" (with the audience putting more enthusiasm into the "Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am" line than Bowie does), a cover of Lou Reed's pounding "White Light/White Heat" that rocks, and the show-stopper, "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," which likewise closes the album.

It's somehow comforting to know that the fallacy of the phony encore was in play even back then, as well as the "farewell" tour. Bowie promises the audience that this will be his last show, ever. Though we can't be sure if he's talking about himself or the Ziggy Stardust persona.

When people describe Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz and Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense as the greatest concert movies ever made, they're usually referring to films like Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars as an example of something more typical and less interesting.

Director Pennebaker, who also worked on the influential 1967 Bob Dylan film Dont Look Back as well as films about Depeche Mode, Branford Marsalis, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? bluegrass tour, simply records Bowie's concert, rather than attempting to make a film of it.

It's not clear if he was attempting to capture the feel of the concert, which frankly, cannot be done. But the film is based on only five camera angles, many of the shots are out of focus and the stage is too dark to clearly catch any details. He also wastes a good deal of time filming the writhing girls in the audience.

The film's audio has been cleaned up and sounds good, unless you take into account that the studio-recorded songs still sound much better. Nonetheless, despite the silly costumes, poor stage presence and the rest of it, the songs have not aged. "Changes," which was lifted and turned into a music video in the early 1980s, especially sounds current.

Imagine listening to 90 minutes of some of the other weirdo hippie music that was out at the time ("I'd Like To Teach the World to Sing" was one of them) and you'll know why Bowie has stood the test of time. Fans will get a kick out of his music and his obvious talent, but I can't imagine non-fans being converted by this film.

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