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ZIGGY STARDUST Concert Film - Toronto


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Directed by DA Pennebaker. (PG) 91 min.

> Oct 4-6, 7pm at the Paradise (1006 Bloor W)

> Oct 7, 7pm and Oct 8, 9:40pm at the Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth)

> Oct 9, 9pm and Oct 10, 7pm at the Royal (608 College).


"Not only is it the last show of the year, it's the last show we'll ever do." With those words, David Bowie pronounced the death of Ziggy Stardust, the creation that made him a star. After retiring the fabulous guise of this messianic space alien, Bowie would adopt many more personas in the next three decades of his career but none so brazen or audacious. As the androgynous, shock-haired Ziggy, the pale, skinny Bowie -- who'd been slogging it out as a third-division pop figure (and mime artiste!) for years -- was suddenly sex on wheels.

If the audience members that night at London's Hammersmith Odeon were shocked at the announcement (which also signalled the end of Bowie's hardest-rocking band), they didn't show it. Then again, if D.A. Pennebaker's film of the event is to be believed, those fans were feeling far too orgasmic to acknowledge any bad news.

Filmed in 1973 for a half-hour film to be released on RCA's new Select-a-Vision laser-disc format, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was later released as a crummy-sounding home video in 1982. Watching it in the '80s, I remember that it was hard to hear what all the fuss was about. Thanks to the new and much-improved audio mix by Bowie and Tony Visconti, this stunning reissue proves that the crowd's excitement was warranted.

While not the cinéma-verité pioneer's greatest music documentary -- Monterey Pop and Don't Look Back vie for that honour -- Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is certainly Pennebaker's lustiest. Lit principally by their own camera flashbulbs (Pennebaker encouraged the fans to take pictures), the fans are portrayed as a series of flickering bodies and strobe-lit faces. Young nubiles of both sexes writhe and gyrate in Bowie's direction as they mouth the words of hits like "Space Oddity" and "Moonage Daydream."

Like all the best stars, Bowie knew how to seem both remote and intimately close, an impression reinforced by the placement of Pennebaker's cameramen (behind the stage, in the first few rows and way, way up in the balcony). Bowie stokes the fans' frenzy with his coy gestures and ever more outlandish outfits. But for the most part he keeps his distance, except for one moment during the closing song, "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." As Bowie and the band cry, "Gimme your hands!" again and again -- a finale lifted wholesale by John Cameron Mitchell for Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- a bouncer wrestles the singer back from those hands lest they pull him offstage and tear him apart.

Though groundbreaking at the time for its use of theatrical conventions, Bowie's Ziggy stage show now seems unusually raw and unpretentious. In fact, never again did Bowie so successfully balance his flamboyance as a performer and taste for stylistic excess -- tendencies that would later result in the woeful Glass Spider tour in the '80s and execrable performances in films like Labyrinth -- with pure rock fury. The unsung hero of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is guitarist Mick Ronson, whose thunderous solo in the middle of the film (while Bowie's doing another costume change) reduces the audience to a steaming puddle. Renditions of "Watch That Man," "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Suffragette City" are just as hot -- clearly, this band is going out not with a whimper but a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am.

Startling and invigorating, Pennebaker's film captures not only Ziggy's last stand, but the end of a wave of extraordinary concert films in the '60s and early '70s. One reason for the scarcity of later movies as potent as Don't Look Back is that relatively intimate theatres like the Hammersmith Odeon were becoming less popular as venues, since there was more money to be made packing bodies into sports stadiums and arenas. As a consequence, the modest theatrics of Bowie's Ziggy show gave way to the larger, more overpowering spectacles of rock giants like Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. Rock films of the era grew equally huge and self-indulgent. (Can you imagine sitting through The Song Remains the Same or Tommy without the assistance of hash oil?)

And in the wake of the MTV revolution, major rock shows were designed to appeal to the viewers at home as well as the kids in the nosebleed section. Musicians began to live for the camera and choreographed their moves accordingly. In Pennebaker's film, it's the other way around, the cameras reacting as quickly as they could to capture the action. When a sax player emerges from the darkness at the back of the stage to play the outro to "Changes," a camera careens in his direction and barely has time to get the player in focus.

Even the footage of Bowie offstage in Ziggy has a rare immediacy. The notion of "going behind the scenes" in the music world seems so tired now, what with music-video channels devoting less time to videos than to tell-all profiles and overmediated "documentaries" about stars making videos or even fans pretending to be stars making videos. Shots of Bowie reading a Telex from his manager, getting dressed or having his hair blow-dried are almost shocking for their ordinariness. The only mystique here is that of an actor preparing to go onstage, and the fact he doesn't stumble out of some bacchanal makes his prowess as a performer even more impressive.

Despite the essential raunchiness of the event, Ziggy's final performance is remarkable for its innocence. There's the sense that the various rituals of the musicians and the fans are still fresh to both and that Bowie is just beginning to realize the potential of his music and his image. All these elements would calcify as rock moved into an era of grandiosity, which was undermined but not extinguished by the emergence of punk. Bowie would hit his artistic peak later in the decade when he relocated to Berlin to record Low, Heroes and Lodger. For his part, Pennebaker went on to make other concert movies, including last year's Down From the Mountain, about the musicians who created the mega-platinum O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and the forthcoming soul story Only the Strong Survive. However, the subsequent work of both artists would lack a certain zest, the kind only an ambisexual space alien can provide.

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