Review: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: The Motion Picture (1973)

It’s an old cliche, and sadly a truth in most instances, that a pop culture figure is never more loved than when they’re recently deceased. Few would dispute this has been the case with David Bowie since he left us just over a year ago, but at the same time many would quite reasonably argue the man and his music never stopped being vital and relevant. The comparative merits of Bowie’s numerous musical shifts can, and no doubt will be debated until the proverbial cows come home, but we can surely agree that it was the introduction of his Ziggy Stardust persona on his 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars that Bowie really earned his rock legend status. As such, Bowie devotees young and old alike will surely be intrigued and excited to see that the iconic concert film of his final performance with the Spiders is returning to the big screen in cinemas across the UK – although, in the great showman tradition, it’s for one night only.

I know a great many of us have stories to tell about what Bowie means to us, so I hope you’ll excuse me relaying my own. As someone who grew up in Hull, or technically just outside it in the East Riding of Yorkshire, this early 70s period of Bowie had a particular potency owing to the fact that the Spiders – guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Woody Woodmansey – were all from our neck of the woods. (My mother even went out with Mick Ronson at one point, though I’m given to understood that doesn’t make her especially unique among young women from Hull in the 1960s.) This was quite a big deal to me as a teenager in the 90s, as at that time Hull didn’t necessarily have a lot to its name: John Prescott, The Beautiful South, Kingmaker. I haven’t lived there for more than 17 years, but it’s nice to see that things have gone up for Hull since, with its current status as the European City of Culture, and the Spiders being celebrated as part of this.

All that having been said, I must also admit I haven’t listened to the Ziggy Stardust album again since those Britpop days, and I don’t find it Bowie’s most compelling period now. The songs had for some time felt a bit played out to me, and by comparison with the more eclectic and experimental sounds explored in, say, Station To Station and Low (probably my two favourite Bowie albums), the Ziggy tracks can feel, well, a bit safe. And of course, as we all know, one of the key problems with being a great entertainer and innovator like Bowie is the level of imitation you can inspire, and how subpar so many of those imitators can prove to be. It can be hard to look at Bowie and the Spiders with their choppy proto-mullets, make-up, knee-high platform boots and extravagant glittering costumes (Bowie has no fewer than five costume changes throughout the show) without being reminded of every corny glam rock band of the time, not to mention the ghastly glam metallers that popped up a decade later.

Still, to say that an artist inspired a shower of shit does not necessarily reflect on the artist’s work, and this concert film makes clear that Bowie and the Spiders were a fantastic live act with some really great songs. Many of Bowie’s biggest hits of the time are in there, including Space Oddity, Changes, Suffragette City and naturally Ziggy Stardust – and yet, it’s often the quieter moments which bring into focus what a real one-off Bowie was. You’d never hear Gary Glitter or Mud sing anything as subdued and lyrically haunting as My Death, and to this day I’m not sure many would dare write, let alone recite that “falls wanking to the floor” line from Time.

The other interesting thing to note, considering this was Bowie in his early days as a superstar, is just how intimate this concert film feels. He may have gone on to be among the first artists to take his music into stadium shows, yet this last show of the Ziggy Stardust tour was in London’s Hammersmith Odeon, a comparatively small indoor venue. Still, this intimacy may be less to do with the venue’s size than with the places director D. A. Pennebaker opts to point the camera. We only get occasional wide shots taking in the entire stage, Pennebaker generally preferring to keep close on Bowie and occasionally Ronson (Woodmansey and Bolder mostly stay in the shadows.) Perhaps most interesting are the times the front rows of the audience are treated to similar scrutiny: Moonage Daydream is a particular highlight, as we see both an overexcited male headbanging along to Ronson’s guitar, and a young woman singing along with eyes closed whilst performing some sort of flowing interpretative hand-dance. A good reflection of the breadth of Bowie’s appeal, I think. (And from a contemporary perspective: gosh, it’s nice to see absolutely no one holding up their phone.)

This one-off screening arranged by CinEvents is definitely one for the Bowie devotees. Participating cinemas will be screening it along with an exclusive video interview with Woodmansey, the last surviving Spider, which will be interesting enough for aficionados, although I’m not entirely sure how well it will play in a cinematic setting; watching it at home on a small screen, it felt rather akin to a DVD extra, and I daresay many viewers can take or leave those. Of course, the fact that I was seeing the film at home just underlines that I’m not getting the full experience. No concert film is ever going to be the same as being there, but seeing it on the big screen is surely that bit closer.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture is in participating cinemas across Britain tomorrow evening, Tuesday 7th March. Click here to find out where it’s on near you.