FILM REVIEW: Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars at Bertha DocHouse

Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
(Bertha DocHouse. Renoir/Curzon cinema. March 7th 2017. Film review by William Ward)

According to Dignity, Britain’s largest funeral operator, David Bowie’s preference for “direct cremation”, thus cutting the traditional farewell ceremony for grieving family & friends out of the loop following his death in January last year, has had a massive impact on the post-death arrangement decisions of many thousands of people across the country.

A man of Bowie’s immense cultural stature, who in the course of his artistic endeavours had adopted any number of different personal guises, might have refused both a knighthood as “ridiculous” and a funeral as “unnecessary”, but – inevitably – nothing can really prevent those once associated with him from digging into his past.

Following a slew of other more or less timely books analyzing the career of the Thin White Duke, Mick “Woody” Woodmansey has penned My Life with Bowie: Spider from Mars (Sidgwick & Jackson), in which he reminisces on his three years and three months as drummer alongside his old friend, guitarist Mick Ronson, and bassist Trevor Bolder in the eponymous band from the Red Planet.

Marking its publication, Mojo magazine has dedicated a “special collector’s cover” for their March 2017 edition, featuring inside a lavish eight-page splash on the Ziggy years (March 1970- July 1973) based on the 66-year-old Yorkshireman’s co-authored autobiography.

Woodmansey has traded artfully on his Bowie connection since being sacked over the phone by Bowie’s manager in July 1973. He formed “the Spiders from Mars” with ex-Bowie bassist Trevor Bolder, and still tours in a self-styled “supergroup” with former Bowie producer Tony Visconti – from his website it appears that their current tour is a sell-out. In his account of the Ziggy years, he assigns himself a pivotal role in the band, which neither Bowie nor Ronson are here any longer to vouchsafe, but his assertions were sufficient to convince Mojo editor-in-chief Phil Alexander to conduct a sprawling, reverential tête-a-tête interview, filmed at the Trident studios (where Ziggy was recorded, between November 1971 and February 1972) in retro-looking black & white.

On Tuesday March 7th in conjunction with Bertha DocHouse at Bloomsbury’s Renoir/Curzon cinema, and some 60 other cinemas up and down the land, Mojo presented this mind-numbingly inconsequential, repetitive interview as the warm-up act for the real draw of the evening, a re-screening of veteran American documentary maker D A Pennebaker’s film of the last ever performance of the Ziggy Stardust show, at the Hammersmith Odeon on July 3rd 1973.

Shot originally on 16mm, then remastered on 35mm, Pennebaker’s film took some six years before being released, at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1979, before being released in cinemas worldwide in 1983, to time with the release of the soundtrack album Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.

Pennebaker himself, whose Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Now (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968) had affirmed his reputation in the genre, admitted that the film was “a total mess”. He had barely heard of David Bowie before being commissioned by RCA to fly to London to film the show, and his work was much hampered by the extraordinarily poor stage lighting, and the lack of both sufficient camera and sound recording equipment. Over the years, the film’s reputation has been much debated, often criticized for the excessive and intrusive cut-away sections recorded in the dressing room, and also for the frequent flickering shots (in very poor lighting) of screaming, sweaty female fans with spangles and glam make-up plastered on their teenage faces.

Even after extensive remixing over the decades (Bowie himself, who rapidly lost interest in his Ziggy persona, was apparently less than cooperative), the overall sound quality is pretty much bootleg; the fixed camera work (no steadycams then) stiff and inflexible. Former Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck was so unhappy with the filmed results of the three numbers he played on, they were all removed from the final cut.

And yet, the film still packs quite a wallop: the sheer energy levels displayed by Bowie and Ronson, their yin and yang body language interplay (Bowie specifically credited Ronson’s bluff Northern blokeishness as the ideal foil to his Southern androgyny), and the overall coherence of the set (honed by some 200 performances, Stateside and worldwide) makes for quite riveting viewing, above and beyond the patchy, amateurishness of much of the presentation.

Beyond its technical shortcomings, Bowie’s scarecrow teeth, his hastily applied make up, and the now sinister-looking use of Oswald Mosley’s 1930’s British Union of Fascists’ lightning logo as stage backdrop would now all be unthinkable, just as the high camp prancing about (including Bowie’s famous simulated fellatio on Ronson’s axe) might be considered “unjustified cultural appropriation” by Safe Space mavens, and the objectification of the overwhelmingly female audience culturally insensitive.

But viewed on its own terms, the show possesses great charm and power. Bowie’s endless costume changes (we see a lot of his pale, skinny little childlike body in the dressing room) still look remarkable, as does Mick Ronson’s defiant musicianship. His playing style may be somewhat generic, and very much of its era, but it is faultless throughout: unlike Woody Woodmansey’s drumming, which is pedestrian at best, and exceeds mere competence only once during his friend Ronson’s shimmering guitar solo slot. Bowie’s mastery of his own material is indisputable – 14 numbers in the final film edit – but his interpretation of the work of others less so: his rendition of Jagger/Richard’s Let’s Spend the Night Together adds nothing to the original; his tribute to Lou Reed’s White Light, White Heat is clumsy and misjudged, and his version of Jacques Brel’s La Mort (“My Death”) – a Belgian singer he did so much to popularize in 1970s anglocentric Britain – seems not to grasp the conceptual complexities of the lyrics. Jacques Brel after all, was not a Spider from Mars, but an Existentialist from Brussels.

Perhaps the only salient takeaway from Woodmansey’s self-serving book & interview, underscored by Pennebaker’s film, is just how rapid and how convincing was Bowie’s complete transformation in a mere couple of years from the fey psychedelic folkie to the hard-edged (albeit gender fluid) rock & roller. After which, Bowie then had the good sense to move on to his next incarnation, leaving others trailing in his wake.

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