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D.A. Pennebaker
David Bowie

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.


Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English PCM Stereo

Runtime: 90 min.
Price: $34.98
Release Date: 4/1/2003

• Audio Commentary with Director D.A. Pennebaker and Music Producer Tony Visconti
• Booklet
• Posters

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Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars: 30th Anniversary Edition (2003)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 25, 2003)

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 many 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. Bowie continued to amaze me through his 2002 performances, which showed him in top form as well; they didn’t match the epics from 1997, but even after I’ve seen Bowie live almost 60 times, I found the man could still surprise and dazzle me.

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 a few 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, additional performers bolstered the core group. All of them 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 show.

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 terrific, 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. (Note that the new 2003 two-CD release of this album apparently includes the full-length version of “Width”.)

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 Grades: Picture C/ Audio A-/ Bonus C+

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-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.

I first wrote the comments above in regard to the original DVD release from Image Entertainment. While they still apply to the “30th Anniversary Special Edition” of Ziggy, I must admit the picture looked better than I expected. Oddly, a sticker on the package’s shrink-wrap read “First time on DVD!” Instead of that falsehood, they should have stated “Now almost watchable!” Ziggy remained problematic, but the new disc presented it in the strongest fashion to date.

Sharpness remained poor. Close-ups periodically manifested acceptable clarity and accuracy, but much of the film looked indistinct. Anything farther out than a head shot presented problems that varied from mild softness to strong blurriness. Apparently taken from a better source, this DVD seemed mildly more crisp than prior incarnations, but the image still appeared soft much of the time.

A more significant improvement related to print flaws. The prior DVD suffered from quite a few examples of defects, but the new one cut down on those noticeably. For the most part, the marks, scratches, blotches, hairs and general debris that marred the old release vanished here; I noticed the occasional speck or mark, but these issues popped up infrequently. Grain remained a distraction, but that will never change; it’s inherent in the original film, especially since they shot the flick in such poor lighting conditions. That said, the ridiculously excessive grain of the old disc decreased considerably; we ended up with grain from the source and lost the grain caused by a poor transfer.

As with the old releases, red and yellow tones heavily dominated Ziggy. Unlike the prior releases, the new DVD tamed them to a large degree. They never came across as vibrant or distinctive, but they no longer seemed so dead and dull. In addition, the reds failed to overwhelm the picture as in the past. On the old disc, red lighting looked dense and heavy and really overpowered the image. That didn’t occur here. The reds remained somewhat thick, but not nearly as runny and opaque as I’d seen in the past.

Black levels didn’t excel, but they seemed more deep and solid this time. They lacked the inkiness I saw previously and they appeared fairly tight. Shadow detail also remained pretty dense but worked a little better. Low-light sequences showed stronger definition, though they still were tough to see. Crowd shots continued to be nearly impenetrable much of the time.

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; director D.A. Pennebaker’s crew shot without any apparent modifications. That factor caused the vast majority of the problems I observed when I watched the DVD. Nonetheless, the new transfer noticeable improved on the old one. The movie remained too unattractive to merit a grade higher than a “C“. While that doesn’t sound like much of an improvement over the old one’s “D”, it really is. Despite the inherent ugliness of Ziggy, I felt quite impressed with the new transfer.

Since I never expected much from the image quality of Ziggy, I could never call the substandard picture a disappointment. On the other hand, the film’s audio always sounded horrific, and unnecessarily so. The album release from the concert provided very good audio, so there was never any reason why the video version had to be so terrible. But from videotape to laserdisc to the original DVD, the music sounded atrocious. Happily, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of the new Ziggy DVD finally gave it the sonic impact the material deserved.

Unlike the muddy stereo presentation of the prior disc, this one offered a nicely open and spacious soundfield. Across the front, instrumentation spread appropriately and distinctly. Ronno’s guitar popped up in the front right to match his stage location, and the other players fell in line as well. Bowie’s vocals stayed centered and didn’t bleed to the sides, though the track took some liberties and moved his singing around the spectrum at times; freakadelic tracks threw his voice around the room a couple of times. The music sounded nicely integrated and airy, as the songs meshed together well and demonstrated a solid stereo image.

Surrounds mostly served to reinforce the forward audio. A lot of stereo crowd noise cropped up back there, and the rear speakers provided a sense of concert hall ambience as well. As noted, a few tracks took advantage of the split surround capabilities; for example, “Moonage Daydream” spun Ronson’s solo around the different speakers. However, the mix avoided too much gimmicky material and it stuck with an involving stereo presentation for the most part.

Where Ziggy demonstrated the greatest improvements related to the quality of the audio. Unlike the muddy and lifeless sound from prior releases, the 30th anniversary DVD presented excellent sonics. Bowie’s vocals always came across as natural and accurate. I noticed no edginess or distortion as his singing appeared lively and distinct. Ronno’s guitar crunched appropriately while drums snapped. Bass response sounded terrific. Low-end was tight and deep, and I noticed no ill-defined or excessively loud elements. I heard a little hum at times that originated from the source materials, but given the nature of the live presentation, this failed to cause any distractions. Bowie fans have waited decades for a good-sounding video version of Ziggy, and now they finally have one.

Note that the DVD also included a PCM stereo soundtrack, but this didn’t simply duplicate the track from the old release. Instead, the new package presented a remixed stereo version, and it also demonstrated the same radical improvements heard in the 5.1 track. Which mix one chooses will depend on personal preference, I suppose, but you definitely can’t go wrong with either one.

Whereas the prior Ziggy DVD offered no supplements, the 30th anniversary release gives us some materials. Only one of these appears on the disc itself: an audio commentary from director D.A. Pennebaker and music producer Tony Visconti. Both men sat together for this running, screen-specific piece. The track offered some decent information but seemed a bit disappointing overall.

Pennebaker and Visconti interacted well and covered the expected topics. The director discussed the challenges involved in the project and his impressions of different elements, while Visconti reflected on his experiences with Bowie, mixing and dubbing done for the audio, and Bowie’s music. The latter aspects of the commentary provided its best elements. Visconti’s known Bowie since the early days, so he can give us an insider’s view second to few. In particular, his chat during “The Width of a Circle” – a song on which Visconti originally played bass and also produced – provided compelling material. Visconti also discussed Bowie’s statement about Lou Reed prior to “White Light, White Heat” and tossed in good notes about his working relationship with Bowie.

Unfortunately, those tidbits popped up less frequently than I’d like. Too much of the time, the pair simply told us how great the concert and Bowie were. This meant a periodic absence of concrete information, as the pair often lapsed into simple praise. The commentary included more than a few useful reflections about the concert and the music, but it seemed fairly average overall.

In addition, the package itself featured a couple of items. An eight-page booklet - not related to “Eight Line Poem” – includes chapter listings, song and other credits, and a 2002 essay from Pennebaker entitled “How I Met Ziggy Stardust and Survived”. The director details how he became involved in the project and its long journey to make it to an audience. Virtually all of this information appears during the audio commentary, but the essay presents it in a more concise manner.

The set also provides a double-sided poster. On one side we find the cover art paired Bowie’s 1972/73 tour itinerary. The other side depicts a smattering of press clippings related to the final concert. (It looks like Bowie fooled all of them, as it appears that virtually everyone interpreted the end of the Spiders as Bowie’s retirement from performance.) The whole thing comes in a nice box housed inside a plastic slipcase.

The absence of any commentary or interviews with Bowie seems disappointing, and it’d sure be nice to someday hear/see that Jeff Beck material. Even without them, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: The Motion Picture offers a solid piece. I don’t regard this as Bowie’s best performance, but the material holds up well, and the concert gives us a lot of great music. The DVD still looks weak, but that stems from the original material, and the image now offers the strongest visuals I’ve seen from the footage. The remixed audio soars and totally blows away the dinky and thin-sounding prior video releases.

I have to recommend the 30th anniversary DVD of Ziggy across the board. When I reviewed the prior disc, I steered neophyte fans away from it due to the crummy visuals and audio; it seemed likely to turn off prospective Bowie-lovers. I can remove those caveats now; the new Ziggy works well as an introduction to the man’s early years. As for big fans, they will also want the new disc. I skipped the old one since it wasn’t superior to my old laserdisc, but the 30th anniversary set merits the upgrade. Obviously, that goes for folks who own the prior DVD. Picture and sound improvements alone make the 30th anniversary Ziggy a must have; the smattering of supplements provide icing on the cake.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4 Stars Number of Votes: 14
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