Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1982)
Studio Line: Image Entertainment

Rock legend David Bowie is the bizarre, ineffable Ziggy Stardust in this timeless concert film. You'll see the inimitable Bowie perform some of his most unforgettable songs. Rock and Roll has never been more imaginative, or sounded so good.

Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Cast: David Bowie
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English PCM Stereo; subtitles none; not closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 20 chapters; rated PG; 89 min.; $24.99; street date 11/10/98.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D/D/F

Although conventional wisdom states that David Bowie’s strongest album is 1972’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, I humbly disagree. I think Ziggy’s a good record, but quite a few others include better material. Predecessor The Man Who Sold the World from 1970 seems superior, as do later efforts like 1974’s Diamond Dogs, 1976’s Station to Station, and 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).

Later tours also displayed better performances than found during the Ziggy era, but that period remains enticing to many fans. Again, I can’t say that I dislike the Ziggy work - which I also consider to include the tour behind 1973’s Aladdin Sane - but Bowie grew immeasurably as a stage performer in the years that followed Ziggy. Frankly, he seemed to reach his zenith during the amazing 1997 tour, which included possibly the finest concerts he ever gave.

Unfortunately, none of those performances appear on DVD or any other commercially available video formats. Only two Bowie shows can be purchased on DVD: a good 1983 concert as part of the Serious Moonlight Tour, and a 1973 outing that came during the Aladdin Sane excursion. The differences between 1973 Bowie and 1983 Bowie are large, and most think he declined precipitously during that decade. I can’t debate that his 1983 recorded work fails to demonstrate the best of his abilities, but as a live performer, Bowie showed much stronger skills in the Eighties than he had a decade prior. The SMT Bowie was much more self-assured and confident, and he displayed greater fluidity and presence.

Not that I dislike 1973 Bowie, and I find the show presented on Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture to be an interesting concert, even if it doesn’t match up with his later live triumphs. This July 1973 performance from London marked his last live outing with the Spiders From Mars, Bowie’s most famous backing band. Consisting of Mick Ronson on guitar, Trevor Bolder on bass, and Mick “Woody” Woodmansey on drums, Bowie played with the Spiders for period of only about four years; they started with The Man Who Sold the World and continued to back him through 1973’s wonderful cover album Pin Ups

For the purposes of the 1973 tour, the core of four were bolstered by additional performers, all of whom remained firmly in the shadows during the concert. Mike Garson’s piano playing gave Aladdin Sane its distinctive sound, and he echoed that work during the concert.

Concert presentations in the early Seventies remained technically primitive. To be sure, they’d progressed past the basics found during most shows of the Sixties, but despite some additional sophistication in regard to lighting and theatrics, the shows were still pretty simple. As seen in Ziggy, Bowie himself moved the genre along to a great degree, especially through his use of makeup and costumes. However, he didn’t really start to exhibit really complex staging until 1974’s Diamond Dogs tour, and later concerts furthered the growth of the field.

The 1973 show seen in Ziggy stuck with visuals that look pretty simple by modern standards, though I’m sure they seemed more revolutionary at the time. Bowie engaged in multiple costume changes, and some decent lighting effects cropped up along the way. However, the primary focus remained the man himself, who started to show the physical prowess that allowed him to become a great live performer.

I’ve seen hundreds of different concerts, but no one equals Bowie in his stage presence and ability. Bowie knows how to move and function on stage to a degree few others understand, and he remains consistently provocative and engaging. Some of this occurred because of his formal mime training in the Sixties; he can use his body in a manner others don’t get. Unfortunately, this was a minor problem during Ziggy. He showed more of the stereotypically silly mime behaviors during this concert; he even does the “I’m stuck inside an invisible cage!” routine, and it all came across as fairly dopey.

Nonetheless, Bowie still presented a magnetic personality, and his attempts made the concert more visually compelling than one would expect for the era. No, he hadn’t fully developed the skills he’d display in years to come, but he remained a vibrant and active presence who showed hints of the future legend.

Musically, Ziggy offered a generally solid performance. The concert suffered somewhat from a general sameness to the music. Ronson’s aggressive guitar dominated the proceedings to such a degree that many of the songs sounded a lot alike; few modifications occurred to differentiate between them. Nonetheless, the amped-up intensity worked for many of the songs, and some of the tunes appeared in the best versions I’ve heard. The medley of “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud”/”All the Young Dudes”/”Oh! You Pretty Things” was really solid, and Ronson’s vicious guitar runs brought a force to “Moonage Daydream” not apparent on the album rendition.

Speaking of which, World’s “The Width of a Circle” also demonstrated much greater depth and sizzle than heard on the record, and the version found on this DVD is the best I’ve heard - sort of. This concert also appeared as a separate album, and “Width” was edited for that presentation; while it lasted a whopping 14 minutes, 24 seconds during the movie, it was chopped down to nine minutes, 35 seconds for the record. Without question, the edited one provided a more satisfying experience. The shorter cut abbreviated a long instrumental interlude; it featured some good guitar work from Ronson but became very tedious. More isn’t always better, as this rendition established.

I didn’t feel that any of the other performances provided definitive versions of Bowie material, but I also didn’t think that any of them harmed the tunes. Yes, the songs seemed too much alike at times, largely because of the concert production, but they still worked pretty well. The concert included no clunkers that undermined the show as a whole.

One problem, however, related from the manner in which the show was filmed. Although famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker ran the show, the whole project looked more like something cobbled together by a bunch of kids who snuck in cameras. Far too many shots of spacey crowd members occurred, and the images from the stage did little to adequately present the show. This was a professional effort? You’d never know from the amateurish results.

As a whole, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture offered a reasonably interesting historical document. It didn’t provide the best of either Bowie’s music or live shows, but it still was very interesting to see for fans like myself. A few of the songs appeared in excellent renditions, and none of them fell flat, though most lacked the power found during the best of the bunch.

Note that Ziggy doesn’t offer the entire concert from July 3, 1973. Guitarist Jeff Beck guested on “The Jean Genie” and “Round and Round” but has never permitted that footage to be shown. Why? Allegedly because he didn’t like the pants he wore that night!

The DVD:

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Ziggy was a tough picture to rate because of the original elements. At best, it was never going to be very attractive, as the film was shot on 16mm film and done under rough conditions. Clearly no adaptations were made to the presentation to improve the visual elements of the movie. This meant that the flick looked consistently terrible, but I can’t blame the DVD transfer for that; it’s always been an ugly movie and it always will be.

That said, I still was somewhat surprised at just how unattractive the image was. Sharpness tended to be rather dull and flat. Some close-ups came across as acceptably distinct, but most of the time the picture displayed a bland and fuzzy impression. The overall look was very soft and tentative, with little definition to be found. Moiré effects and jagged edges caused no concerns, but print flaws were a major issue. A variety of marks, scratches, blotches, hairs and general debris showed up throughout the movie, and the image displayed a tremendous amount of grain.

Colors consistently appeared drab and bland. Basically two tones dominated: red and yellow. Due to the lighting schemes utilized, those were really the ones hues that could be seen during the movie. The yellow tones came across as flat but acceptably clear, but the red caused definite concerns. They rendered the picture as very heavy and indistinct, and they created an impenetrable look at times. The colors simply seemed to be thick and unrealistic.

Black levels tended to appear murky and inky, and they forced a very dense look to many scenes. Shadow detail was a mess much of the time. Low-light situations both on stage and in crowd shots looked excessively dark. At times, some of the audience images were almost totally unwatchable, especially during the first half of the movie; a few scenes depicted a screen that was virtually black!

For many concert movies, adaptations to the normal stage set-up are made to allow the show to be filmed. Obviously none of these alterations occurred for Ziggy. As a result, it offered one of the least attractive images I’ve ever seen, and the addition of many print flaws and weak focus meant that it earned a very substandard “D” for picture quality.

While the image was ugly, I didn’t feel too surprised that it looked so bad. This is an old and inexpensive project; it should have been more attractive, but I didn’t expect it to be radically stronger. However, the quality of the PCM stereo soundtrack of Ziggy could and should have been superior to the crummy mix heard here.

For most of the film, the stereo imaging seemed to be moderately indistinct but acceptable. However, it started very poorly. For the first few songs - until the “Freecloud” medley - the track used very hard localization. All audio came from either the left or the right speakers and didn’t blend together at all. After the initial few tunes, though, the integration became more satisfying. Placement of instruments still seemed less than distinct and crisp, but the audio spread reasonably well across the channels, and some decent effects occurred at times; for example, during “Moonage Daydream”, Ronson’s guitar histrionics flew wildly about the soundstage.

Where the soundtrack really died, however, related to the quality of the audio. Midrange almost totally dominated the piece, as very little in the way of distinct bass or clear highs occurred. The track sounded worst early in the film, mainly until the stereo imaging improved. For the first few songs, the mix sounded so bad that it appeared to have been recorded from outside the venue; the muddy, insubstantial music came across with no definition or presence.

Although the situation improved after a few numbers, the track remained drab and thin. In general, the audio seemed to be either flat or shrill, with no songs that came across as clear and lively. Highs appeared harsh and screechy, while bass response was boomy when it existed at all. Some popping and distortion occurred at times, especially during early tracks like “Watch That Man”. Frankly, the audio seemed to have been taped by someone with a cassette deck from the crowd.

What made the poor quality more upsetting was the fact that much stronger recordings clearly exist. If you hear the album version of this mix, you’ll witness very solid audio. That record offered a good concert recording for the era that showed good clarity to the highs and nice depth to the bass. The difference truly is night and day between the two recordings, and that fact rendered the DVD an even bigger disaster.

Completing the trifecta of terror are the DVD’s extras. There aren’t any.

As a massive Bowie fan, I’d love to be able to recommend Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture. The concert offered a decent look at early-Seventies Bowie; it wasn’t the greatest performance, but it had enough good moments to be worth a look. However, the DVD is a disaster. Picture and sound quality are atrocious, and the package lacks any extras. Ziggy should be left for the absolute die-hards like me. I wouldn’t recommend this for anyone new to the world of Bowie; it’ll quickly turn them off and lead them to avoid further examination of his work.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.238 Stars Number of Votes: 21
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