Fri 10 Jul 2009
All right. I admit that I lost track of Scott Walker after “Make It Easy on Yourself” (Bachrach/David, 1965) and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (Crewe/Gaudio, 1966). I don’t think I ever picked up copies of Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 or Scott 4, and I know I didn’t follow his cult-like discovery by the punk and electronica movements in the UK during the 80s, 90s and 00s. I feel a kindredship to Scott, because I kind of dropped out of the music scene (I was a vinyl addict during the late 60s through about ’71) until my kids became channel surfers in the mid 90s. So it was one of my favorite films of the decade (Steve Zissou) that got me interested in Scott again. On that Bowie-filled beautiful soundtrack (“Queen Bitch” by Bowie and a dozen outstanding performances by Seu Jorge) is Scott Walker’s (autobiographical?) “30 Century Man”. Fantastic.
Then I’m trolling for recommendations for my Netflix queue and up pops “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” by Stephen Kijak. Made in 2006, and released for about two weeks on the big screens in the Bay Area this past winter, the film, like Scott, is an unsung gem. I don’t like current documentaries much–they either appear too slick for my tastes, or have subjects that I get more interested in through reading rather than watching.
This film gets it just right for me, though. Scott Walker as a subject is just plain fascinating: here’s a musician who’s an avant-guardian and a poet, so listening to him talk is a joy. He also seems to be an honest guy. In some of the fine archival footage from the 60s (when Scott “Walker”, real name Engel, was the bass player of the fabulous Walker Brothers), he says, “I’m not interested in making money, I just want to make good music.”
And the visual style of the film meets the seriousness of its subject. The lighting, film and sound editing, and framing of the interviews and studio sessions is of consistently high quality and tone. Not as stylized as Errol Morris’s “Fog of War”, not as overtly packaged as, say “The Corporation” or “An Inconvenient Truth”. Just a pleasure to look at creative people struggling and ultimately enjoying themselves, so we do, too. [Which reminds me, please watch "Helvetica" and "Objectified": two nouvelle-doc films about design which are similar in subject and style to "30 Century Man".]
The film follows Scott through commercial success and failure over the course of five decades, and discovers that even through long gaps between releasing albums, he is constantly working to refine his dense, loud, disquieting, dissonant, nearly inscrutable sound and lyrics, a sound that (I think it was) Brian Eno describes as, “the first real music for the 21st century.” Walker claims that he still is writing “songs” just as he did in LA in 1965, but as testimonials from some of his more famous and rabid (and intelligent) acolytes (Bowie, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, the guys from Radiohead, Allison Goldfrapp, Jarvis Cocker, Dot Allison, Johnny Marr of The Smiths, ) make clear, these songs are completely and utterly unique in structure and production.
One of the nicest feels in the documentary are when these photogenic UK artists are caught thinking and reacting to bits of Scott’s music played for them by the director–not many films would expose us to that wonderful feeling we get just sitting with friends listening to great music. And Walker’s “recent” music from his last three albums, “Climate of Hunter” (1984), “Tilt” (1992), “the Drift” (2006), is great even if it’s probably painful to listen to for more than the three or four minute clips in the film. You want to hear more, but you’re probably too scared to play one of these albums all the way through. Walker himself refuses to listen to his albums once they have been mastered. Plus you can really alienate your friends and neighbors if you follow Walker’s orders from the jacket of “the Drift”: “This is an analogue recording mastered at Abbey Road Studios, London and should be played at high volume.”
It’s clear even to a low-level fanboy like me that the people I consider ultra-talented in today’s studio production scene–Radiohead, Albarn, Beck–owe an awful lot to Scott. Hey, remember how we all wanted Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood to get the Oscar for his unsettling score for “There Will Be Blood”? Hmm. Check out the violin section groaning to meet Walker’s demands in “30 Century Man”. You can get a sense of where Greenwood picks up the Walker trail.
Some other delights: the film starts out with Walker supervising the construction of a 4 foot cube of plywood to be used in the studio as a sounding board by his brilliant percussionist, Alisdair Malloy, for “the Drift”. Later we see Scott and making use of the cube by hitting it with a mallet, dragging a trash can over the top of it, slapping it, etc. I’ll let you the lucky viewer guess what Walker wants to do with a beef back-rib rack brought straight from the butcher to the recording studio.
And if you want 60s vibe, the first part of the film has amazing videoscope (Jacques Brel and Tom Rush are alive and well and living in this film) and an interview with the man with the world’s biggest collection of Scott Walker memorabilia. A bomb went off in my Alzheimer-headed brain when this guy was leafing through playbills for Lulu, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Englebert Humperdinck, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, Small Faces, Cat Stevens–those were my people! I lived Carnaby St. in my Exeter dorm room and at Sam Goody’s record store in New York.
The film includes insightful interviews and outtakes with Walker’s long time collaborators: the arrangers Angela Morley (recent obit from the UK Independent) from Walker’s amazing solo albums of the 60s and Brian Gascoigne, who explains how, fractal-like, Scott tries to find the line between harmony and dissonance; the producer Peter Walsh; Malloy; saxophonist Evan Walker and electric guitarist Hugh Burns. These segments are carefully cut in to always add to the interest and provide some background for the Walker-novice to begin to try and understand where the music comes from and what it might mean. And Scott, himself, is very eloquent, coming out of a legendary seclusion to bravely lay himself and his creative process bare to us.
Existential-poetic lyrics like Burroughs or Beckett (Scott claims that he was a beatnik before he became famous. I wonder when that was? When he was 12 years old and hitchhiking from Ohio to LA to make his first recordings?); percussive and orchestral arrangments like Cage and Ligeti; and a weird baritone voice somewhere between Bryan Ferry, Bob Dylan–those are some of the things you can find in this film.
Oh, and now I absolutely must rent Leos Carax’s “Pola X” after seeing the ordeal he put Walker through to make the soundtrack as a small side project that took three years to complete.
Considering I probably really wouldn’t like listening to Scott Walker (same thing is pretty much said by his record company in the film), “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” does what a documentary is supposed to do: convince you. I’m convinced. Hats off to Oscilloscope Laboratories, the production and distribution company founded last year by Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, for picking up this wonderful film and getting it out on DVD. If you check out their catalog, it also includes “Wendy & Lucy”, and “The Paranoids” from first time Argentine director Gabriel Medina — two other films I highly recommend.
After you see this film, get more trivia from Kijak’s blog: http://www.scottwalkerfilm.com. Enjoy!