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Ziggy Lives: Stardust Memories

A review of Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture (1983)

by Eleanor Levy - Record Mirror ( 1983)

Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (Thorn EMI, 1983)

The year is 1973 - Ted Heath is Prime Minister, Sunderland win the cup and no-one has ever heard of Cruise missiles.  There are The Sweet, Suzi Quatro and Gary Glitter. And David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust.

DA Pennebaker's new film of Ziggy and the Spiders farewell concert is not a great cinematic experience, but it does capture a real sense of time and place.   Then, Bowie had a delicious "don't touch" quality.  You knew he was BAD - but many of us were too young to quite understand why.  You knew he was strange - and liked it.  And he was SO pretty.

Photo by Barry Plummer

This film, for all its faults, shows Bowie truly as a product of his time.   The audience have Oxford bags, long, limp hair with middle partings, turquoise eye shadow, tank tops.  And in the middle of all this absurdity slinks and stomps Ziggy Stardust - larger than life, towering on grotesque platform shoes, contorting his anorexic frame and pulling all attention towards him with pure magnetism - an over-used word but the only one for this context. Ten years later and a clean and sanitized Bowie is still at the top.

With a new record company, his previous business links are exploiting his continued success by the release of both the film and soundtrack.  And RCA and former production company Mainman are secure in the knowledge that though the man has gone on to pastures new, he can still bring the money rolling in for them.

Photo by Robert Ellis

The result is a strange film.  Badly shot in places, with unsubtle attempts to gain laughs at the seating audience's expense, the sense of having caught a piece of history still manages to shine out.  To see Ronson, Bolder and Woodmansey again, to hear those guitar solos that somehow never sounded quite as boring as other people's.

And then there's the songs.  If the Ziggy image was perfect tack, the music was just perfect.  The sound is suprisingly strong, the performance energetic and powerful, the lyrics dated but the tunes not.  "Moonage Daydream", "Suffragette City", "Lets Spend The Night Together" - over an hour of hearing and seeing what is essentially just a show, but one with one important feature, the actor himself.  No-one but Bowie could have got away with singing "Rock n Roll Suicide" while towering on nine-inch red and yellow heels clad in a clad (snagged) stocking.

It's hard to say if the film captures what it was like to be at Hammersmith Odeon that night or to have belonged to the whole Ziggy era, but it certainly puts all Bowie's work in focus for those who missed it.  He had an across-the-board appeal - young, beautiful and wild, everybody's fantasy if only they would let him.  From the perfect flame hair to the horrible shoes, the film shows the caricature for what it was - an actor playing on people's subconscious desires.  At one time he's cold and distant as Bowie goes through grade one beginners mime movements, more reminiscent of Rowan Atkinson than Lindsay Kemp.  At another, there's complete self-centredness in the ritual play between Bowie and Mick Ronson, seemingly oblivious to the audience and camera while playing up to them totally.

Photo by Robert Ellis

Despite the technical defects, what finally spoils the film are the cuts to the "real" Bowie in his dressing room - making up, changing, smoking a cigarette, superficially chatting with Angie.  Such scenes are intrusive.  They interrupt the magic of the performance, break into the illusion and destroy the fantasy.  It wasn't David Bowie the people went to see, but the Ziggy persona, and all that went with it.

Bowie has gone through various changes since then, finally (?) resting at the establishment respectability that "Lets Dance" and recent screen acting has brought.

None of them compare with the character and the show of this film - they are totally different people.

Its stupid to think that a too-thin, red-haired, sickly-skinned individual with dodgy teeth, disfigured eyes and a fetish for biting his guitarists private parts could result in the most fantastic "Star" music has produced.  The film is sad in a way, because the charchters well and truly dead, but as a piece of nostalgia, both for the era and Mr Bowie's earlier life, it's still captivating.

The motive for releasing the film may not be the most honourable and it could have been better, but its all there is.  Go along, laugh at the clothes, sing-a-long with the music...and fall in lust all over again.

---This page last modified: 28 Dec 2018---

Ziggy Stardust Scarf (1973)