Throughout most of David Bowie's 1973 concert film "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars," the flamboyantly androgynous (at the time) rock legend's performance isn't half as interesting as his gender-bending wardrobe.
In pancake makeup and his trademark spiky orange glam-mullet, Bowie's outfits include a duster-sleeved, silk kimono robe mini-dress and knee-high boots; a striped one-leg, one-sleeve body stocking accessorized with a boa and bangles the size of ring-toss rings; and a mesh shirt that reveals his beanpole frame, worn with a pair of capri pants and open-toed platform heels.
But for the first hour of the movie -- which was filmed at the farewell performance of the Ziggy Stardust persona and is now being re-released in a mediocre and muddy but "digitally remastered" print -- Bowie does little more in these get-ups than absent-mindedly pace the stage song after song, pausing once in a while to swing out a hip to place a hand on.
A low-budget early project by D.A. Pennebaker -- who went on to leave his mark on both concert movies ("Monterey Pop," Bob Dylan's "Don't Look Back") and documentaries ("The War Room," "Startup.com") -- the film is also riddled with cinematic snafus. Frequently grainy, out of focus or badly framed (Bowie's head is cut off in several shots), the lackluster five-camera cinematography gives no sense of the size of the audience or the arena (Hammersmith Odeon in London) and is composed of largely of static shots from stage left. The film's most engaging moments are close-ups of crying, screaming, breathless audience groupies, who seem to put more energy into performing elaborate sing-a-longs than Bowie puts into leading them.
Seven or eight songs into the concert -- after textureless versions of "Ziggy Stardust," "Watch that Man," "Moonage Daydream," "Changes" and "Space Oddity," among others -- Bowie's spirits seem to pick up with rousing renditions of "Cracked Actor," "Time" and "Let's Spend the Night Together." But even the best tunes in the film are musically inferior to the versions on Bowie's studio albums, and even when he finally springs to life for a final 30 minutes, his sometimes self-important performance is laden with gimmicky gestures like miming.
In between some numbers Pennebaker treats us to amusing backstage footage ("You're just a girl!" Bowie jokes with his wife "What do you know about makeup?"). But at the same time he'll cut back and forth to, say, a tedious 10-minute (or maybe it just seemed like 10 minutes) solo showdown between lead guitarist Mick Ronson and bassist Trevor Bolder.
If there's one thing "Spiders from Mars" does well, it's to capture the enthusiasm of Bowie's fans. A prologue outside the concert hall shows more dress-alikes than you'd see at a sci-fi convention, and Pennebaker's best footage comes from disco-ball-lit shots of the euphoric audience.
This limited theatrical re-release (certain to be followed by a DVD) may serve as a transporting flashback for Bowie fans who became fans during his Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane eras. But if you can get your hands on the hard-to-find video or DVD of Bowie's 1983 "Serious Moonlight" tour (videotaped for pay-cable channel Showtime), it's a vastly superior production, full of dynamic showmanship, and even a few of the same songs.
Production compaines: Bewlay Bros., Pennebaker Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Director: DA Pennebaker