David Bowie's Glass Spider tour in 1987 rates among the most divisive outings of his entire career, on the one hand standing as a return to the vast theatrical ventures that characterized his early- to mid-'70s concerts, but on the other symbolizing the absolute waste of resources and talent that many critics considered his 1980s output to be. Certainly there was little in the reception to that year's Never Let Me Down album to suggest that his public was even remotely interested in a Broadway-style extravaganza built around the LP's songs, with Bowie's own apparent reluctance to revisit the icons of his most sacred past serving as a deterrent to even the most indulgent fans. Of the 20 songs featured on the Glass Spider live DVD, themselves a very representative sampling of his entire period repertoire, no less than ten were drawn from his last three albums -- that is, Let's Dance, Tonight, and Never Let Me Down itself. The crucial Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane sequence, on the other hand, served up just two, "Jean Genie" and, peculiarly, "Time." Add to that crime the sheer magnitude of a stage set that saw Bowie himself positively dwarfed behind grandstanding dancers, overactive musicians, and a monstrous fiberglass spider, and it is not difficult to comprehend why the man's supporters still smirk and look self-consciously away whenever the affair is mentioned.
All of which means you have no way of anticipating the sheer brilliance of this DVD. The lack of extras is disappointing -- a few pages of biographical text are the only tangible "bonus." But the feature itself is spellbinding. Filmed in Sydney during the Australian leg of the tour, it captures the band from a vantage point that most fans simply never got to experience -- perfect sound, spot-on choreography, and excellent viewing angles. The narration that linked many of the songs, and was either lost or intelligible at the actual shows, is as clear as Bowie himself intended it to be, and the tight shots of the individual musicians and dancers ensures that not a moment of the action is conducted out of sight. The ensemble introduction to "Fashion" is exhilarating (if a shade preposterous), while the opening of the show itself, with guitarist Carlos Alomar very visually defying the bellowed shrieks of an invisible Bowie, has a wild charm that suggests, if he ever gets bored with guitar-picking, he's got a solid future in silent movies. The spider itself is mesmerizing, the most unexpectedly compulsive on-stage prop in modern rock since the Rolling Stones took an outsized phallus on the road with them. The musical performances, too, are a lot more powerful than reputation insists -- without exception, the live rearrangements are stunning, with a handful of songs (an unexpected "Sons of the Silent Age," a violent "I Wanna Be Your Dog," and a heartfelt "Absolute Beginners") actually competing with their studio incarnations in terms of dynamic and drive. Indeed, the deeper one delves into the performance, the stronger the conviction that, if Bowie had released Glass Spider on CD, instead of hiding it away on VHS alone, history might well have rehabilitated the album around the same time as it began to forgive him the rest of his 1980s sins.