[Review] 50th anniversary screening of Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture

By Jessica Durston - 5 July 2023

Arts and CultureOpinion and Features

Columnist Jessica Durston attended the 50th anniversary screening of D.A. Pennebaker's documentary 'Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.'

Earlier this week I was transported back to 1973 along with many other audience members in cinema houses across the world. I’m talking about the worldwide streaming of ‘Ziggy Stardust The Motion Picture’ for its 50th Anniversary.

Anyone who knows me well knows that one of my greatest passions in life is music, and particularly, the music of Mr David Bowie and all his personas.

Selected cinemas around the globe came together this month to show DA Pennebaker’s monumental ‘rockumentary’ filmed in 1973, documenting the last performance date of the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars tour which took place on the same day, 50 years ago (on 3 July).

Before the film was screened, an introductory panel discussion was streamed live from Hammersmith Apollo (the same venue the final Ziggy concert took place in) for audience members to enjoy. The panel consisted of host Phil Alexander, the incredible pianist Mike Garson, Don Letts, Suggs from Madness, Richard E Grant, Danielle Perry from Absolute Radio, and Bowie’s co-producer of many years – Ken Scott. The group discussed the iconic rock character of Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s importance, and influence back in the 1970s, and how he is still relevant and highly regarded to this day.

Earlier on, Mike Garson also opened the evening’s event with a live solo piano arrangement of some of Bowie’s most-loved songs.

Phil Alexander informed the worldwide audience that this screening would be extra special as it would be shown in 4K for the first time, and clips of Jeff Beck’s special guest appearance towards the end of the concert had been restored after being deleted in all previous versions of the film due to Jeff’s request.

I had seen this documentary a few years ago, being the enormous Bowie fan that I am, but let’s just say that seeing this masterpiece in 4K with cinema-quality stereo sound really hit different.

It was an assault on the senses. Ziggy and the Spiders’ loud powerful glam rock sound invaded your very soul and battered your eardrums. I had chills on many occasions – especially during big-hitters like the eponymous title track ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and a personal favourite of mine ‘Moonage Daydream.’ It’s safe to say you’ve not experienced the genius of the Bowie & Mick Ronson combo until you’ve experienced it full blast, within a cinema setting.

If you haven’t seen DA Pennebaker’s magnum opus before, it truly is a glam rock feast for the eyes as well as the ears. Bowie and his Spiders appear in full makeup, and some of the most beautiful and outrageous shiny outfits ever made. Bowie himself has around four or five costume changes throughout. He             appears otherworldly donning his gender-fluid kimonos, capes, and jumpsuits, and striking dark and glamorous eye makeup. His pale skin is stark, lit by majoritively red toned spotlights and his highlighter, facial gems and earrings shine iridescently.

The main man transfixes viewers, standing centre stage, a god amongst men, and untouchable because of both his physical space away from the audience, and the metaphysical distance he creates through his musical creative genius.

At this time in the 70s, Bowie revolutionised people’s perceptions of gender as well as rock n roll music, and Ziggy happened to be the chosen star vehicle. During the entirety of the concert movie, Bowie is shot and edited very carefully so that the illusion of his Ziggy character is not broken. There is little communicated about the ‘real Bowie’ - the man under all the makeup and costume. Instead, David Robert Jones from Brixton truly becomes the messianic guitar hero, embodying this theatrical conceit and losing himself to the character completely.

The film covers the whole of Bowie’s last concert as Ziggy at the Hammersmith Odeon in ‘fly on the wall’ style. I always found this music feature interesting as much of the footage consists of the actual concert and specifically focuses in on Bowie’s appearance. There are also frequent cuts to the audience. You can almost feel the energy, the perspiration and the admiration coming through the screen, watching the close-ups of the devoted concert goers flashing into view through the strobe lights.

The cuts between Ziggy and his fans links back to this idea of a messiah figure. After performing the opening number for the concert set, the stage turns to darkness and a spotlight appears to reveal the first of Bowie’s costume changes. The lightning bolt spotlights flash behind him, and he appears, God-like, with arms outstretched in the middle of the stage. The wild screams of the fans can be heard over the first chords of ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and the concert reaches its peak. Fans screaming with outstretched hands gives a messianic feel to the performance.

Furthermore, Pennebaker chooses to shoot Bowie’s fans consistently in close-up or extreme close-up shots. The claustrophobic atmosphere of the standing crowd is evident through the extreme close ups filling the frame. Pennebaker portrays Bowie’s audience in a frenzied, almost orgy-like, manner.

Not only is this consolidating Bowie as a messianic figure but reinforcing both his own and his audience’s celebration of sexuality. Additionally, Ziggy’s ‘symbolic death’ (that was announced at the end of this Hammersmith concert), made the front page of many newspapers as Bowie (or Ziggy) had ascended to the status of cult icon.

During this final show, Bowie chooses to perform Jacques Brel’s song ‘My Death’, which is spellbinding. Seated, with his acoustic guitar in hand, his piercing vocals crash through the arena, with the song’s hopeful yet morose lyrics foreshadowing the earth-shattering announcement he is to make before finishing the concert with his own aptly named track ‘Rock n Roll Suicide.’ The last stanza of Brel’s poetic song’s lyrics are as follows:

‘But what ever lies behind the door

There is nothing much to do

Angel or devil, I don’t care

For in front of that door, there is you’

Bowie gets as far as finishing to utter the final ‘for in front of the door there is’, when several of his adoring fans can be heard interrupting, screaming ‘ME!’ This brings a smile to the rock star’s face and his connection with, and love for his audience is palpable. It’s really a standout number within the film for me.

Continuing with my earlier-raised idea of structured and controlled identity, it seems a conscious decision of Pennebaker’s to capture Ziggy and leave David Bowie out of the film. The only shots you see of Bowie backstage are mid-costume change where few words are spoken. Additionally, he is shot close-up with his make-up being applied or touched up.

The lighting choices are interesting in certain instances as they echo the kind used for the glamourous starlets of the 1950s. Additionally, the shots captured backstage in the dressing room area give the film a definite voyeuristic feel. Bowie hardly makes eye contact with the camera and as a viewer, it feels very much as if you are witnessing something private that you should not be. You feel as if you are part of an exclusive club when watching.

Now that I’ve prattled on about all of that thematic and stylistic stuff, I feel I need to discuss the musicians and the wonderful songs. I really don’t know how else to describe Mick Ronson and his guitar skills aside from magical. He really was such a brilliant guitarist. On top of this, he really knew how to whip up the crowd at Hammersmith Apollo. Seeing him and Bowie bounce off each other is really something – there are moments between the pair that hearken back to their memorable appearance on Top of the Pops in ’72 where their flirty performance of ‘Starman’ had viewers question both Ronson and Bowie’s sexuality, and their own.

Moreover, the ridiculously talented Trevor Bolder (bass) and Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey (drums) team up to provide the solid rhythm foundation for the other creatives to work with. Additionally, the concert would not have been the same without the presence of the gifted Mike Garson (piano) and soulful blasts from Ken Fordham on saxophone.

The setlist performed by the stellar band consists of several well-known Bowie glam tracks, as well as a few songs from his earlier days. Most Ziggy fans would recognise ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Time’, ‘Suffragette City’, and ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’, but Bowie and the band also perform older favourites such as ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Changes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’ and ‘The Width of a Circle.’ There is something for every kind of Bowie fan, from 1969 – 1973.

Seeing this film at the cinema for this anniversary screening really was such a surreal, special treat. I felt part of something bigger and got a taste of what it would have been like to have attended this infamous final show all those years ago in ’73.

Pennebaker’s documentary really hammers home what a groundbreaking tour ‘Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ was and what an incredible performer and creative Bowie was.

More information about the Ziggy Stardust 50th anniversary, and its DVD/soundtrack release can be found online at https://www.davidbowie.com/

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