You’d have to delve deep into Hollywood history to find a face as photogenic as that of the late David Bowie (he died last Sunday at the age of 69) — to the iconic faces of Greta Garbo or Louise Brooks, who presented to the world a dazzling blank beauty onto which everyone could project their desires. The difference being that Bowie himself was the one who determined what image was projected.
For that reason, perhaps he never quite registered as powerfully in feature films playing roles written by other people. He’s properly alien in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), he’s charismatically undead in Tony Scott’s “The Hunger” (1983), and he takes a beating in Nagisa Ôshima’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” (1983). But it’s when a legendary documentarian tries to uncover his soul that he seizes the screen and demonstrates his mastery of the illusion of self.
Every close-up in D.A. Pennebaker’s “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars,” a documentary of Bowie’s 1973 performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon Theatre, which turned out to be the last appearance of the androgynous, subversive sci-fi alias of the title, could be made into an album cover. He poses with a seductive sneer, heightened by makeup that is part courtesan, part zombie. The coppery aura of his mullet crowns eyes that are alternately reptilian and angelic. Pennebaker’s hand-held cameras pursue Bowie as he whips fans into ecstasy with such ’70s anthems as “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” and the less danceable, more ominous “My Death,” with the lyrics:
My death waits like an old roué
So confident, I’ll go his way
Whistle to him and the passing time.
Unlike in Pennebaker’s “Dont Look Back” (1967), an account of Bob Dylan’s 1965 British tour, there’s no downtime in hotel rooms or limos where Bowie can relax and just be himself (when Dylan does this, he is even more of an enigma). Instead, everything is performance, and Pennebaker’s camera is caught up in the whirlwind of the music, the taunting striptease of wardrobe and personae. Before each costume change, the screen goes black and Bowie is back in the dressing room, where assistants take off one Ziggy carapace, revealing the pale pupa of his scrawny body, and replace it with another.
At the end of the show, Bowie surprises everyone, Pennebaker included, by announcing that this has been a very special appearance for himself and the band, because it will be their last performance ever. In fact, though, he was shedding Ziggy, only to be reborn in a series of new avatars, each a harbinger of the zeitgeist to come.
Francis Whately’s documentary “David Bowie: Five Years” (2013) takes up where Pennebaker left off, highlighting five key years in Bowie’s career between 1971 and 1983, from the Thin White Duke to a healthy, beefed-up Bowie who handles a press conference like Tom Brady. A more conventional profile, it features interviews with Bowie and his collaborators, who discuss the creative process behind songs like “Golden Years,” “Let’s Dance,” and the anthem that might be the truest portrait of the artist, “Heroes.”
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.