Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture

  • 1983
  • Movie
  • Documentary, Musical

Veteran documatarian D.A. Pennebaker's DON'T LOOK BACK (1967), which followed Bob Dylan on the eight-day English tour that marked the last hurrah of his acoustic folk period, is the gold standard by which serious rock documentaries are judged. And by those standards, this film falls short — the fictitious VELVET GOLDMINE (1998) is a far more evocative...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Veteran documatarian D.A. Pennebaker's DON'T LOOK BACK (1967), which followed Bob Dylan on the eight-day English tour that marked the last hurrah of his acoustic folk period, is the gold standard by which serious rock documentaries are judged. And by those standards, this film falls short — the fictitious VELVET GOLDMINE (1998) is a far more evocative representation of the brief moment when glam rock, which Bowie embodied, seemed a revolutionary challenge to sexual and sartorial mores. But as a document of the ever-mutable musician's signature persona, a wraithlike androgyne with a head full of apocalyptic dreams, it's fascinating. Shot the day of Bowie's last Ziggy Stardust concert, on July 3, 1973, at London's Hammersmith Odeon (Pennebaker later confessed that when RCA records called and proposed that he film one of their artists, he thought they said Marc Bolan), there's a smattering of backstage footage taken pre-show and during costume changes. But Bowie nearly naked isn't Bowie revealed: He's an opaque presence even before outlandish costumes and glam-ghoul stage make-up transform him into the zombie shell of "All Tomorrow's Parties." The constraints under which the Pennebaker team filmed were considerable. With the exception of a single bright spot, usually occupied by Bowie himself, the stage lighting plunges most of the action into gloom that defeated the cameras. Bowie's notorious lewd interplay with guitarist Mick Ronson is almost lost in the shadows, and bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey might as well not have been there at all. But Pennebaker does capture the skinny, pallid Bowie, all towering platform shoes and shock of red hair, slinking and posturing in one preposterous get-up after another: thigh-skimming silk kimono; asymmetrical knit bodysuit with one leg and one full sleeve; skintight striped suit with space-age shoulder pads; glittery see-through t-shirt and super-tight black jeans. Curiously, despite a couple of highlights — Bowie's own "Moonage Daydream" and "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," and a surprisingly poignant cover of Jacques Brel's "My Death" — the film more than anything reveals that Bowie wasn't a particularly charismatic performer. The look is paramount and a still photograph conveys as much as a moving image. A full hour of footage from the film was broadcast on TV in 1974, and the film began playing festivals in 1979. By the time it opened in theaters in 1983, the Bowie it depicted was long gone. A new sound mix for the 2002 rerelease dramatically improved the audio quality of the concert footage.

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  • Released: 1983
  • Review: Veteran documatarian D.A. Pennebaker's DON'T LOOK BACK (1967), which followed Bob Dylan on the eight-day English tour that marked the last hurrah of his acoustic folk period, is the gold standard by which serious rock documentaries are judged. And by those… (more)

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