There will likely be other David Bowie documentaries, but Moonage Daydream feels especially valedictory. Brett Morgen’s retrospective on the polymathic musician pulls footage from across his career, from his rise to fame as Ziggy Stardust through his Berlin trilogy to his final recordings. The lush cinematography, kaleidoscopic editing, and state-of-the-art music remastering give this the feel of a final statement about an influential artist.
Fifty years before the Moonage Daydream premiere, Bowie shot his first concert film for an international audience. D.A. Pennebaker, known among music fans for his documentaries on Bob Dylan, Little Richard, and Alice Cooper, worked with a skeleton crew to make Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, a film of Bowie’s last concert as Ziggy Stardust. As one of the few film documents of Bowie’s iconic Ziggy era, it’s an important document of a crucial early period in Bowie’s career.
Pennebaker had accepted an assignment from RCA to shoot 20 minutes of Bowie’s last show on the Ziggy Stardust tour, which they hoped to release as a promo for the SelectaVision video disc they were developing. After seeing the previous night’s concert and sitting in on a rehearsal, the filmmaker had a different idea: “I hoped we would have enough film,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in January of 2016. “We were going to make 1972’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars movie.”
Bowie was a matinee idol in the making, and an ideal guinea pig for innovative technology like home entertainment. His blend of early rock-and-roll and Golden Age of Hollywood influences with science-fiction narrative, gay iconography, and contemporary rock sounds, combined with a coldly alien persona that played with his very humanity, gave his work a forward-looking quality that predicted and influenced generations of musicians. Teenage fans who felt out of step with their peers looked to Bowie as a way to make their sense of alienation into a strength. Because he hadn’t announced to the public that he would be retiring the Ziggy Stardust character after the final shows of the tour, a film would offer his fans one last look back before he assumed his next role.
Working with three camera operators, Pennebaker put together a plan on the fly to capture the concert. His crew fanned out across the auditorium, shooting wide-angle shots of Bowie as well as close-ups of his young, predominantly female fans. Because the Hammersmith Odeon was not lit for a movie set, the filmmaker encouraged Bowie’s fans to use flash photography to make up for lost light. The fast film stock he used wasn’t graded to the cavernous darkness of the venue, showing the movie’s subject through a veil of photographic grain.
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars feels like a feature-length screen test, both for its poor technical qualities and for Bowie’s willingness to show every facet of his skill as a performer and musician. We not only hear Ziggy play guitar and sing—Bowie’s nimble baritone and workmanlike guitar skills are on some display here—but he also vogues, dances, and mimes through selections from most of his albums to that point. The tour arrangements of a few songs, most notably “Oh! You Pretty Things”, were more reliant on a ragtime-sounding piano line, and Bowie’s clipped, sprechgesang-style delivery allowed him to lean into the camp aspects of his 1970s persona. A few of his set pieces, like the Lindsay Kemp-choreographed modern dance routine from late in the film, give Bowie the opportunity to comment on his growing level of fame without saying a word. He glowers and pouts at the camera in commanding close-ups, bathed in red light like the Masque of the Red Death reincarnated as a rock star.
Through Pennebaker’s camera, we also see how Bowie is dealing with the strain of carrying a much-anticipated arena rock show. He looks hollow-eyed and exhausted as he prepares for the show, wearily regarding his costumes hung on the wall like a row of Chekhov’s guns. His complexion seems to grow sallower and his eyes more dead under the fluorescent light of the dressing room in other brief scenes scattered throughout the film, and if the eventual Farewell Speech wasn’t a surprise, Bowie’s waning energy makes it seem inevitable.
An early edit of the film had some small-scale screenings on the midnight movie and college film society circuit, and an abbreviated cut had surfaced on ABC’s “In Concert” series in 1974. However, what Pennebaker described as the “very sloppy” filmmaking style, combined with Bowie’s apathy towards Ziggy Stardust in the years after its completion, stalled the audio remix that a wide release in theatres required. By the early 1980s, Bowie had gotten over enough of his self-consciousness about the Ziggy era to work with producer Tony Visconti on an audio remix, and the film was eventually released on cable TV, VHS, and, yes, SelectaVision.
Even without Moonage Daydream on the release schedule, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars feels like a document only a fan could love. The murky cinematography and below-average audio are disappointing in light of both the influence of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era and his mile-wide perfectionist streak. Morgen was able to hold this scratched zirconium to a projector bulb and find the facets of the film that worked within the wider context of Bowie’s career, but the musical numbers he excerpted from the film are parts that are greater than the whole.
“Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” is available for rental or purchase. “Moonage Daydream” is in theaters now.