Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">
Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video
SCOTT WALKER: 30 CENTURY MAN
In the 1960’s, a boy band sensation topped the pop charts to the screams and adulation of teenage girls in Britain and America. The cute one went solo, disappeared for awhile, and moved on to experimental music that found favor with an influential audience. No, he’s not Paul McCartney.
Scott Walker was the key singer of the Walkers Brothers trio, who were neither Walkers nor Brothers and fondly remembered in the U.S. for their soulful hits “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” From the opening shots, this film treats the Ohio-born Scott Engel as if he were Orpheus back from the underground, breathlessly hanging on his every note and word as if they issued from a musical messiah. (Julian Cope subtitled Walker’s reissue collection The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker.)
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man meticulously details the step-by-step evolution of a musical artist within the swirl of pop culture from the 1960s on, though little about the man. Director Stephen Kijak trumpets that he’s the first to lasso the hat-wearing enigma, but the film doesn’t really support the reclusive myth, which comes across as exaggerated just because Walker didn’t give interviews.
A parade of Brit rockers, from such bands as Blur, Pulp, and Radiohead, pronounce his influence, but they comment as if listening to his records for the first time as they zero in on cool lyrics. Several differentiate Walker’s work from middle-of-the-road (MOR) or art and progressive rock, such as by ELO, but the differences seem to be more about his literary, political, and art-house cinema references, like “The Seventh Seal” and “The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime)” on his commercially doomed 4 album, than his music. Less pretentious is a look at the influence of kitchen sink dramas, like Ken Loach’s films, on his depressing lyrics.
There is no tragic explanation for why Walker’s appearances in the public eye were so intermittent. Nor is there much biographical background that relates his music to his life. Just a mumble about a fondness for alcohol. He quite rationally explains that he writes very slowly and that the odd instrumentations of his later albums were designed for the studio and problematic to performance publicly. (Many artists, including Enya and Joni Mitchell, make the same point about their lack of touring.)
The interviews with a decidedly not reclusive Walker are at their best when he enthusiastically discusses his mellifluous baritone voice as an instrument and the influence of Jacques Brel. He thoughtfully considers what it means to be a crooner in the rock era, insight that all those other old idols blandly covering traditional pop standards could learn from.
The bombastic narration by actress Sara Kestelman does finally deliver on the film’s opening announcement, that this is first time Scott Walker has let anyone watch him work in the studio. The long climax seems like an extended record company promotion for his latest, most avant-garde album, 2006’s Drift, complete with track-by-track abstract music videos. It is more than a little ageist that the filmmaker marvels that a pop musician in his sixties can still creatively break new sound ground, whatever one thinks of the barely melodic intonations.
British focus of the documentary is also frustrating, as neither
Walker’s early or late music is put in the wider musical context. Part
of the enormous success of his first iteration as a pop idol was because
the band married Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound with the British Invasion,
but Spector is never mentioned. Bare mention is made that the Walker
Brothers’ early hits were penned by Brill Building stalwarts such as
key links in this chain of chanson history and doubtless models
for his first melodic experimentations.
Nora Lee Mandel