‘Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ In Barnsdall Art Park, Sunday September 4th 2016
Although I have listened to David Bowie’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ too many times to count, I had never watched the movie ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. I got to the chance to change this during one of these movie nights organized by Cinefamily in Barnsdall Art Park, may be the perfect site to watch an outdoor movie, except that it was sold out! But I saw ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ standing next to a wiring fence, which may not be the perfect condition to watch a movie, but tells you how much I love Bowie.
Oh sure I could always see it again in a more confortable position, plus I was not the only person doing this, I was standing next to a very enthusiastic woman who shouted after the screening, ‘they all failed!’ pointing to the people who remained quietly seated, having a family picnic and drinking wine. She was right, it’s a concert movie which captured a historical moment and an immortal rock energy… it was not a time for picnic.
Directed by D. A. Pennebaker, The movie was shot in 1973, during Bowie’s last performance as his Ziggy Stardust persona, at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. You even hear him saying ‘Of all the shows on this tour, this particular show will remain with us the longest, because not only is it the last show of the tour, but it’s the last show that we’ll ever do. Thank you.’ At the time, people believed he was retiring whereas he was just saying goodbye to Ziggy, and for this sole reason the movie should be considered as a timeless monument.
Ziggy sings all the hits. ‘Hang onto Yourself’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Five years’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Moonage Daydream, ‘Changes’, ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Cracked Actor’, he covers Jacques Brel, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, it’s a dream setlist, it’s a delight and probably the closest thing I will ever be to attend a Bowie concert,… even though the images are dark, too red and grainy and you wish the stage footage would look better, but it was filmed 43 years ago! Actually, the movie was criticized for its technical roughness as well as for Bowie’s stiff performance and lack of enthusiasm. This didn’t really strike me, on stage, he is Ziggy, although it’s true that he seemed more into it during the second part of the show.
You get to see plenty of teenagers crying, you get a glimpse of Bowie backstage changing costumes and even an apparition of Angie Bowie at the beginning, but at the end you don’t learn much about Bowie the man, it’s a concert movie and nothing else, barely a documentary about his life… Actually you may learn a bit about Bowie with these backstage scenes, as he is getting ready at the peak of his glam rock and costume extravaganza: he looks tired, with a gaunt physique and very probably already bored of performing the same songs every night. You can have a sense of it during some songs, played differently may be to keep Bowie interested. Contrarily to the myth, he was not living for the stage, ‘I get incredibly bored, because I don’t see myself so much as a performer,’ he said in an interview in 2003. ‘I mean, I don’t live for the stage. I don’t live for an audience.’ Something you feel in the movie, there’s no real intimate connection with him and the public. In 1973, Bowie was bored with Ziggy while people couldn’t get enough of the gender-bender act… you see fans, boys and girls, dressed up with heavy make-up inspired by one of Bowie’s best characters, when he was ready to move on. This is probably the most important part of the movie, this disconnection between the rockstar and his fans, the performer way ahead of his audience, already thinking about something else.
And how a 1973 concert is different from a 2016 concert? Obviously, there were no cell phones, no electronic distraction and the crowd seemed to be much more focused on what was happening on stage. Also, an endless solo guitar (by the great Mick Ronson) in the middle of a song was the indulging thing to do, and nobody would complain or get bored. There was no stage diving, no crowd surfing (although a fan jumps on stage and tries to grab Bowie at the end) but there was no need for that kind of artifice, Bowie’s flamboyant drag-queen-via-Japan outfits and stage antics were shocking enough.
The movie still captures a great moment in rock ‘n’ roll history, thanks to Bowie’s undeniable charisma, and this, despite the grainy camera, and the not-so-cheerful vision of the backstage scenes. It was the end of the Ziggy myth, but the beginning of what was about to come. The movie does seize this moment in time, and if I am not sure it captures the whole magic of a live performance, I have never seen a concert movie which manages to do this. The real experience is gone, unique and lost in time somewhere in 1973, Ziggy is gone, but not really, you can’t kill myths, and all these people clapping and shouting after the movie, this woman screaming ‘noooooooo!’ when Bowie says ‘Thank you very much, bye bye, we love you!’ at the end of the concert, was the best feeling ever.