I’m lucky to live in a town that has an independent theater that not only shows recent art house films and old cinema classics and cult favorites, but that also periodically screens classic rock concert films. Most recently I attended a screening of DA Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spider’s from Mars at The Loft. This was a particular treat. I was able to witness the work of the great master of The Rock Doc Pennebaker (Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop) on the big screen while also enjoying a collective rock experience by seeing the film with an audience who was as engrossed by the film and the music as I was. We were in it together – rocking, applauding, and bobbing our heads while our eyes bulged as the screen exploded in an orgy of music, light, and sound. Pennebaker creates such a viscerally pulsing experience that the film serves as a kind of spectre that maintains the spirit of a world and an entity (Ziggy Stardust) that no longer exists. His film makes us wish we were there (back in 1973) while also allowing us to feel that we are there (as we watch it in 2014). Watching the movie in a theater with a live audience is like opening a time capsule and climbing inside together. What we find is a lot of glitter, glam, disco balls and the beautifully spectral cry of a bygone era.
This is Ground Control
to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule
if you dare
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating
in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
-David Bowie, “Space Oddity”
Indeed this film transports us to a time capsule where music, people, and the very air people breathed were agitated in a most peculiar way. Glam rock squeezed men into glitter and make-up and literally gave a new face to possibilities of masculinity as defined by Rock N Roll. David Bowie’s fictional persona Ziggy Stardust led the helm. Girls adored this creature, this alien, this androgynous man who offered them an alternative to the “wham bam thank you man” world of straight men. Closeted gay boys looked to Bowie’s glam persona and its broad acceptance by the hetero community as an endorsement that it was okay to be different. In fact, Ziggy Stardust was a celebration of “Oddity.” It put Weirdness and Otherness on the map as a place to fit for those who didn’t fit anywhere. It was the square hole for the square peg.
Ziggy played guitar, jamming good with Wierd and Gilly,
And The Spiders from Mars.
He played it left hand, but made it too far,
Became the special man,
Then we were Ziggy’s Band.
David Bowie, “Ziggy Stardust”
In this film, Pennebaker captured David Bowie’s supposedly last concert on July 3, 1973 at London’s Hammersmith Odeon Theatre. While promoted as a last concert, really the event was the staging of the suicide of Bowie’s fictional persona Ziggy Stardust. Bowie was killing him off on stage and documenting the suicide in a film. Certainly the conscious knowledge that this was the last of Ziggy infuses the film with a radical energy because the audience (in the theater and in the film) is consciously aware that we are witnessing the primal glitter-infused musical elegy of the alien entity that Bowie created. Knowing that it is the end is part of what makes it so good. Sure, Bowie continued on for decades after this concert, but the cinematic offing of Ziggy Stardust was a once-in-a-lifetime death, and Pennebaker captured it beautifully.
Bowie is in full glam regalia in this movie. Eye shadow and lingerie. Unitards and kimonos. His bare ass cheeks wag at the audience as he belts out such iconic classics as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “Moonage Daydream” with the accompaniment of his “Spiders” which include Mick Ronson on electric guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, and Mick Woodmansey on drums. It is the sum total of these musicians that make Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars a singular musical organism. Pennebaker makes that clear by the way he has compiled the concert footage. This movie is a complete immersion in the energy of the concert – a dialogue between Bowie, the band, the filmmaker, and the audience. It is more than just a concert movie. It is a stand-alone piece of cinematic art that captures a moment we can never relive except through Pennebaker’s vision.
Much ado has been made of the lousy print quality of the film. It’s grainy. It fluctuates in and out of focus. But to me, this is part of the aesthetic. It creates distorted static, not unlike a bad transmission from outer space. It blurs the faces into a field of lights and darks, tears and glitter. If it were crisp and clear and focused, the film would lose its visual aura and would be nowhere near as energetic as it is with its grainy dissolving blur. The film delivers a state of rapture and euphoria induced by Bowie, his band, and everything they represent to the audience. Euphoria is not crisp, tidy, focused or linear.
Pennebaker delivers the high of this experience by splicing together footage of the musicians with bleeding and fractured streaks of light, the crying and swooning faces of the audience, and the energy charged environment. Pennebaker closes in on Bowie’s face as he belts out songs that celebrate otherness or croons laments over his own metaphoric death. He then pulls the camera back until Bowie is a small red blur on the sidelines of a field of black. Pennebaker uses the full space of the screen to mesmerizing effect. Enormous expanses of black allow Bowie to glow and hover like an alien in space. In “Space Oddity” the screen is fractured into an explosion of splintered light, the audience reduced to shards of emotion and energy. A disco ball looms like a space ship and then dissolves into black.
It is Pennebaker’s editing that captures the high of the concert in the moment and continues to deliver that high forty years later. Pennebaker uses the concert lighting to his advantage at times aiming the camera straight at the lights and letting them blow out our vision in a smear of color. He alternates between rich velvety fields of blackness, fields of colored stage lighting, and the strobing faces of the frenzied audience. Pennebaker cuts back and forth between Bowie, his band members, and the audience in a beautiful hallucinatory bleed of music, emotion, and experience. Bowie belts out his sonic poetry in his exuberant glam. On the surface it is shiny, glittery and flirting with the ludicrous. But Pennebaker’s integration of color and darkness shows Bowie and his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust as a presence that is externally flamboyant while also internally deeply personal and introspective. Bowie’s effect is reflected in the tears rolling down the cheeks of the girls in the audience who are worshipping at Bowie’s altar of Glam Rock.
My death waits
like a beggar blind
Who sees the world
through an unlit mind
Throw him a dime
for the passing time
My death waits there
between your thighs
Your cool fingers
will close my eyes
– David Bowie, “My Death”
In one scene light refracts off light as Bowie sings of his own death. The camera moves in so close to Bowie’s face that it becomes a make-up smeared hovercraft. The intense close-ups beautifully document Bowie’s ode to his own pop icon demise. Girls in the audience cry with heartbreak as Bowie reaches into the very depths of his alien soul. Girls arms stretch across the screen toward Bowie, and likewise toward us, pulling us into the beautiful rhythmic dialogue between Bowie and the audience. We are drawn into a collective experience of sound, vision, light, color, emotion, and music. It is euphoric and elegiac. A concert and a funeral.
There are many tremendous rock moments in this film. What a riot to be pierced by the ripping riffs of “Rebel, Rebel” and “Suffragette City” and to hear how ahead of his time Bowie was in setting the stage for punk rock. For me, the musical high point of the film is “Moonage Daydream” in which guitarist Mick Ronson commands the stage, steals the show from Bowie, and tears his guitar to sonic shreds. Pennebaker cuts between Ronson and the audience. The screen pulses with strobes creating a visual fracturing and splintering rhythm that bounces off Ronson’s power chords. Light and sound create a bodily experience for audience watching the film. In this extended sonic wall ripping solo, Ronson puts the P in Punk before it existed while also taking Power Rock to the Nth degree.
I must note, however, that what makes Ronson rock so hard in this sequence is the way that he rips through and plays off Bowie’s stage persona. Bowie is the clownish sad androgynous poet with a voice like no other. Ronson’s solo kicks extreme rock ass and exemplifies the masculinity of rock as extracted through power chords on an electric guitar. The fact that Ronson’s solo is bookended by Bowie’s poetic lyrics and androgynous face makes Ronson’s solo even more astounding and riveting. Bowie’s pleading voice has enough power to tear holes right through the sky as does Ronson’s guitar playing. Combined they create a new universe – the one where Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars come from. It is the play between Bowie and Ronson and their effect on the audience both in the film and in the theater that makes this scene so effective. On its own, it would be an amazing live rock guitar solo, but Ronson playing with and against Bowie elevates the number into a greater form of sonic and performance art.
Pennebaker moves with fluid invisibility between concert footage, cuts to the audience, and glimmers of backstage banter and costume prep. Pennebaker intentionally focuses on the female fans who are hypnotized by Bowie and high on adoration. These girls are worshiping at Bowie’s altar of Otherness. Interestingly the film does not show any of the gay male audience. Instead it delivers an intentional juxtaposition between the androgynous Bowie and his largely female fans. Despite the fact that Bowie mimes homosexual acts on stage (e.g. letting Ronson momentarily air-fuck Bowie with his guitar), Bowie still appears as a heterosexual rock star who offered girls an alternative dream boy. This is true for many Glam Icons of the late 60s and early 70s. They were largely heterosexuals in drag creating alternatives to masculinity in rock. Sure, Bowie and his Glam Rock comrades also gave homosexuals a face for their otherness, but Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as he appears in this film comes off as a misplaced, displaced hetero alien in faux drag. In a way this is even more revolutionary and emotionally effective because he is so completely outside of every box.
Speaking of drag, there is no shortage of outrageous costumes in the film. Pennebaker documents the era of outrageous androgyny as Bowie prances about in knit unitards, kimonos, negligees and his underwear. In all honesty, Bowie comes off more than a little dated and tawdry in his ridiculous garb. It’s probably a good idea that he decided to send Ziggy Stardust to an early grave.
Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth
You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette
The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, then you forget
Ohhh how how how, you’re a rock n roll suicide
Youre too old to lose it, too young to choose it
And the clocks waits so patiently on your song
You walk past a cafe but you don’t eat when youve lived too long
Oh, no, no, no, you’re a rock n roll suicide
-David Bowie, “Rock n Roll Suicide”
Of course, this wasn’t Bowie’s last concert, but it was Ziggy Stardust’s. The film gives us the perfect visual coda to a great album which is called The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. How brilliant of Bowie to have Pennebaker film the band’s fictional “Rock n Roll Suicide” and create such a stunning visual funeral. How lucky I was to be able to attend the funeral from 1973 in 2014 and pay witness to this eulogy from a bygone era, an era that Pennebaker documented sublimely in this film.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.