IN SELECTED CINEMAS ACROSS THE UK AND EUROPE: Tonight 7th March Find your nearest participating cinema
RUNNING TIME: 122 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Last year was a poor one for all sorts of reasons, and it seemed that we had a record number of celebrity deaths, but for many it was the passing away of David Bowie that seemed to hit hardest, sending a shock wave throughout the world. I know two people who didn’t even like him or his music at all yet appeared to be profoundly affected by the death of somebody who seemed to be far more than just a pop star. Despite being a huge fan of probably his defining film The Man Who Fell To Earth, I’ve always quite liked Bowie rather than loved or even ‘really’ liked him, but I recently set myself the task of exploring his huge output beyond the few songs that I know [which are probably the same ones everybody knows], so what better start could there be than this concert film which captured the last performance of Bowie in his androgynous, alien-like Ziggy Stardust personal, a concert where Bowie’s announcement: “It’s the last show we’ll ever do” shocked many who thought he was retiring from music altogether? It’s fair to say that I didn’t entirely know what to expect. As a concert documentary, it’s rather primitive, though it seems that not all of the flaws were the fault of the filmmakers. As a showing of a great artist in his prime, it’s not perfect either, but does give you a sense of the uniqueness and magnetism of the man – plus lots of cracking music.
Bowie had been touring for nearly a year without a break. Director D. A. Pennebaker, who’d previously directed the well-received music festival film Monterey Pop and the Bob Dylan tour documentary Dont Look Back, was originally intended to film just 20 minutes of the gig as a promo for a new video disc product RCA was developing, but after seeing Bowie’s 2nd July show he quickly prepared to film the whole thing, Bowie’s management company agreeing to finance the film which was supposed to get a theatrical release soon after the tour. Pennebaker claims that he didn’t know it was going to be Ziggy’s last gig, though others have disputed that. Jeff Beck performed on three songs, but once he found out that he’d been filmed he insisted, probably because he didn’t like how he stuck out, that these tracks were removed from the film. Shot with only three cameras, the film struggled to find a distributor and, aside from a few 16mm showings in colleges, was first seen on TV in a cut down 60 minute version. RCA requested that many references to death and suicide in Bowie’s lyrics should be bleeped out, but Pennebaker only bleeped the mono-sound negative, while the stereo film print and soundtrack remained intact. Post-production actually took years and Bowie was reluctant to help out with the sound mix until 1982. The uncut, fully mixed, 33mm version wasn’t released until 1983, and even then plans for a major cinema release, despite the coming out of a live album, didn’t pan out: it had a very limited release and then went onto video.
The concert film is actually proceeded by a short, running just over half an hour, in which MOJO magazine’s Editor-In-Chief Phil Alexander chats to The Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey, whose memoir My Life With Bowie: Spider From Mars has just been published. Shot in black and white and containing lots of shots of Woodmansey’s hands, it’s a fascinating conversation and the down-to-earth Yorkshireman is great company as he tells how he wasn’t even very keen on Bowie’s music when he got the phone call from the man himself to play on his new album, and the mental process he went through to decide whether to accept or not. His reminisces on what it was like living in a hive of creativity where sundry other stars would just drop in, and his reactions to Bowie’s ‘announcement’ during the gig, also shouldn’t be missed. He also gives an explanation as to why Bowie’s songs are so unique that – come to think of it – is very true. Despite never leaving its studio setting, this is a worthwhile prologue to the main event and certainly makes me want to check out Woodmansey’s book.
So on to the actual gig, and an odd electronic version of – I believe – part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which was in the film A Clockwork Orange, is the first piece of music we hear as the credits come up and we build up to the concert with lots of Bowie lookalikes dominating the crowds gathering outside the concert hall and back stage footage of Bowie having his hair dried, smoking, and receiving a letter which seems to have been written in code. The concert opens with what will probably be the first of many songs I don’t know – Hang On To Yourself – performed by Bowie in the first of several outlandish outfits he will sport throughout the gig, the oddest possibly being a stripey one-leg, one-sleeve body stocking sporting a boa and huge bangles. As Bowie continues through some more songs, sometimes playing the guitar as well, it seemed to me – though I’m no expert – that he’s rather more restrained than the amazing performer he’s supposed to be, content to mostly pace around the stage, though he still sings the songs fine, and it struck me how exhausted he must have been after a year’s touring. He’s still totally hypnotic to watch – which is just as well as he’s all we see for much of the time. Roughly half way through the gig he livens up [maybe he took something], and performs the rest of the songs with considerable energy [as well as a bit of mime], which include very fine renditions of Let’s Spend The Night Together by The Rolling Stones, White Light/White Heat by Lou Reed and a rather poetic but – given Bowie’s still quite recent death – possibly morbid track called My Death by somebody called Jacques Brel. From the few Bowie songs that I knew in this concert, the arrangements seemed to be somewhat heavier, with Mark Ronson’s lead guitar given greater prominence. Still, even though I’m of the opinion that that much of Bowie’s best stuff came later, there are a lot of great tunes here – Space Oddity, Changes, Moonage Daydream, Cracked Actor – and it struck me how rarely we have such multi-layered and often downright odd lyrics in our samey, banal pop charts today.
The sound may disappoint some who are used to the audio technology of today, and, due partly to having only three cameras and very limited lighting, the gig is shot in a very ‘rough and ready’ way, the photography often grainy, badly framed, shot from limited angles, and even out of focus in a few places. At one point the camera zooms towards somebody and starts to shake as the cinematographer just loses control. For a lot of the time we either just see Bowie bathed in red light, or Bowie and Ronson bathed in red and/or blue light, against a dark background, with the other two band members largely reduced to a few long distance shots. I’ve seen lots of gigs – of far less well known artists – shot with far more technical prowess, but one shouldn’t criticise too much as they were clearly doing the best with the limited resources that they had, and actually I got to rather liking it. This rawer kind of filmmaking can be rather appropriate for rock music. While there’s no real sense of the arena nor the size of the audience, the numerous shots of audience members [often female – not that it bothered me] in total rapture work really well in showing what it’s like to be totally ‘into’ a song at a gig – I’ve been ‘there’ quite a few times myself, but it’s quite a hard thing to explain to those who’ve never had the pleasure. This film also made me feel nostalgic for the days when there weren’t huge barriers and large gaps populated by burly security guards seperating you from your idol[s].
The band is very tight and Bowie seems content to let Robson dominate a few times and even have a lengthy duel with bass guitarist Trevor Bolder which is possibly too long though gives Bowie a bit of a break. Some other, totally unseen [except for one moment] musicians contribute flute, saxophone, mellotron, piano and organ sounds. There’s only one really obvious edit – the cuts are generally done smoothly – and we sometimes return backstage with Bowie as he begins to change into another crazy outfit. Nobody seems to pay attention to the camera and we get a real ‘fly on the wall’ feel even if everyone is actually just pretending. The mundane reality of the dressing room is quite different from what we may have been led to believe, and you get to see a very down-to-earth and quite humorous if very tired Bowie interacting with others – plus an appearance by another legend of the music world who seems to have just dropped in. While its rather primitive [but mostly out of necessity] filming style took a bit of getting used to, and its star seemed to take a while to really get into gear, I was still rather glued to Pennebaker’s film – or rather the extra-terrestrial being at its centre. It may have finally made me into a major fan. Bowie lovers will need no further encouragement to go and see it on the big screen, but give it a go even if you’re not one. You may come out somewhat changed.
CinEvents are working with MOJO magazine – Britain’s biggest-selling music magazine, which Bowie guest edited in 2002 – to further enhance the cinema-going experience. Every attendee will receive a copy of the magazine which will fully document the Ziggy-era, and which will also feature an exclusive David Bowie/Spiders From Mars Collectors’ Cover. This special souvenir cover will not be available in the shops, and is destined to become one of the rarest covers ever produced by the award-winning MOJO team with a retail value of £7.99.