D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary record of David Bowie’s last concert featuring his Ziggy Stardust persona is a pretty bare-bones affair, with a few inconsequential backstage snippets to add a touch of intimacy to the historical moment. Filmed at Hammersmith Odeon, London, on July 3, 1973, and heretofore limited to TV showings, it’s long been a rarely seen disappointment thanks to its murky sound mix. Now restored and sounding good, it’s getting its first series of theatrical releases. And while one appreciates seeing (again) the performer in his prime, it’s still not one of the great concert films.
Pennebaker’s most creative contribution seems to be selective shots of the audience in all their strobe-lit, acid-soaked, sexually hysterical glory, and while there’s undeniable artistry in the mix-and-match editing of the music and these stoked acolytes in the grip of abandonment, still it boils down to a greatest-hits-up-to-that-time concert consisting of songs that more often than not sounded better on record.
Of course, with Bowie one mustn’t factor out the visual - so be it noted that from a distance of 30 years all that glam posturing looks a little precious, an archly theatrical period move whose significance has dwindled with the passage of time. There are also some dubious musical choices, like Bowie’s god-awful, whole-’nother-key harmonica playing that sucks all the energy out of “Cracked Actor” - and the endless guitar solo by Mick Ronson on “The Width of a Circle,” the kind of Dionysian heart cry that can seem levitating if you hear it in person (especially if you’re properly “prepared”), but just seems self-indulgent if you don’t.
Aside from that, this is Bowie idling at one his several career cusps, a summation concert reaching back to “Space Oddity” and “Oh! You Pretty Things” and including then-new songs like “Watch That Man” and the Weimar cabaret-influenced “Time.” Fans of this period (and it’s a tribute to Bowie’s continual re-invention of his music that he’s managed, like Miles Davis, to inspire disagreeing groups of fans) should be satisfied, while those of us who think that Bowie made his best records after Aladdin Sane (and before Let’s Dance) will watch with more critical interest. But interest all the same.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film and music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].