Behind the screening of D.A. Pennebaker's cult documentary...

It’s late on Saturday and a near capacity crowd have gathered within the Glasgow Film Theatre’s main screening room for a rare opportunity to see D.A. Pennebaker’s landmark Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars film on the big screen.

The audience is eclectic - some could easily have attended the actual tour depicted on screen, others would’ve been too young to ever experience David Bowie in person - but they share a distinct atmosphere. Coming just weeks after his passing, this isn’t a wake but nor does it feel like a celebration: it’s a chance for fans to re-experience an artist at the height of his powers, and an early example of a legacy event that will surely be reprised with different projects all over the world for years to come.

The film itself feels timeless yet of its era. The crowd shots, for example, from within the Hammersmith Apollo (sorry 2016: I mean the Eventim Apollo) are a riot of energy and passion without a single fan shooting the show via their iPad. The picture too is a world away from the multi-angled, high production values of today’s HD concert films. By contrast, the music feels as fresh as ever: these are songs that been a constant in the lives and doubtless many defining moments of everyone in attendance.

Pennebaker’s observational style and candid back-stage breaks are common now but inventive at the time. It’s a style that works especially well during 'Moonage Daydream'. After Mick Ronson wrangles an extended dynamic solo at its conclusion, the film steps back a minute in time and moves the action to the dressing room. The sound of Ronson’s ingenuity echoes in the background, but Bowie has the rather more mundane matter of a costume change to deal with. Some might say that such moments spoil the magic of the Ziggy character, but it’s fascinating to see Bowie’s chameleon-like switch between fantasy and reality.

This show was of course famous for Bowie declaration that “it’s the last show that we’ll ever do.” The reaction is an audible chorus of shrieks of despair from the hoards of fans, but surely no-one could realise the breadth of new beginnings that this finale would lead to.

The evening had started with Let’s Dance: Bowie Down Under, an 11-minute documentary short which crammed a wealth of information into the creation and context of the video for Bowie’s famous comeback single. The message behind it, Bowie told Rolling Stone at the time, was simple: “It’s wrong to be racist.”

“Let’s Dance was my entry point into Bowie,” says the film’s producer and co-writer Ed Gibbs. “I remember seeing the video when I was a little kid, and I wasn’t even aware at the time that Australia had an indigenous population. The images that we were fed of Australia in the UK were generic stereotypes that all tended to be white. It was all we saw of Australia. It was a lightbulb moment and it really stayed with me.”

Gibbs, a former resident of Australia, was particularly interested in what happened to the video’s main couple, played by Terry Roberts and Joelene King. “Joelene was our starting point,” he adds. “I wondered, what happened to the girl in the red shoes?”

Together with director / co-writer Rubika Shah, Gibbs’ investigation took him to the remote outback bar that features in the video (“I just didn’t feel like we were even going to find it, and it was just suddenly there”). The film - part of bigger project in the making - help to shape the image of David Bowie as a man at the forefront of a new zeitgeist of political awareness in popular music. At the time he had spoken of his desire to use his status as a platform for change.

“Interestingly this was pre-Bono, pre-Live Aid,” explains Gibbs. “It was before rock stars preached to football stadiums to thousands of people. He was certainly among the first to dip his toe in political water and he still did it in a surrealistic way. His form of expression has always been surreal even if he’s going straight down the line, and that’s what makes him so interesting.”

The film shows that the Let’s Dance video was shot with little forward planning, despite Bowie having a clear vision for what he wanted to achieve. The video was the result of a very particular collision of people, place and politics.

“One of the things I found really remarkabls about this whole era and this particular story is just how fearless Bowie was,” concludes Gibbs. “Bear in mind this was a big comeback video, it could’ve all gone horribly wrong. There could’ve been a riot in the pub. It was that fearlessness and that complete clarity of vision which is quite breathtaking.”

The third stage in the Glasgow Film Festival’s celebration of David Bowie comes with tonight’s special event screening of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Feel To Earth at The Planetarium at Glasgow Science Centre.

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Words: Ben Hopkins

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