Look at the work and workings of one of music’s most reclusive artists.
Dir. Stephen Kijak, 2007, 95 min
I am completely the wrong audience for Scott Walker: 30th Century Man. When I hear the name “Scott Walker,” the first image that comes to my mind is of that asshole in Wisconsin, not a reclusive experimental musician. I’ve stated my ignorance of musical composition, appreciation, and history so many times on this blog by now that I’ve lost count, so I think I’ll have to start treating that fact as a default that everyone just kind of has to know about me. Documentaries are under no obligation whatsoever to make their material accessible for the newbies. And this is a movie that’s going for the people who truly understand music, who get what it means when it’s talking about rhythms and such. I’m blocked off from this world, but even so? I still understand that this is a really good movie.
It helps that Scott Walker has such a singular, distinctive voice. He sounds like an beat poet singing opera along to science fiction instruments. It’s outer-worldly, higher-consciousness stuff. As numerous fans and contemporaries of Walker attest in this movie, he doesn’t sing meaningful lyrics so much as he sings lyrics that open up wonderfully to a multitude of interpretations, all of which can be valid at once. His voice has an arresting ethereality that’s unlike anything else that I’ve heard. If nothing else, this doc made me want to check out more of the guy’s stuff.
The movie charts Walker’s career from its humble origins in Los Angeles, as part of the Walker Brothers (they were neither brothers nor Walkers), to its explosion once he arrived in London in the mid-sixties. After that, he went through a creative frenzy, breaking up with the band that originally led him to fame and embarking on a mad journey of musical experimentation. It’s here that the film most threatened to lose me, entrenched as it is in musical discussion, but I pulled through, and fans will no doubt eat it up.
What fans will really love, though, is the one-on-one time that director Stephen Kijak snags with Walker as he records his latest album. It’s unprecedented access from someone who has scorned the limelight for decades. Walker seems rather plain and sane for a man with so much mystique built up around him, but he’s an engaging presence. Some of his methods are undoubtedly batty in a most delightful way, though. One scene has him directing another man in how to properly beat a slab of meat. The juicy thuds provide the percussion for one of Walker’s songs. It’s that kind of lucid lunacy that marks all great artists.
Sometimes the movie could do a better job of conveying that genius. Was there nothing better Kijak could come up with than playing Walker’s songs over visual effects that look like the digitized show that accompanies the Windows Music Player? Although that isn’t as annoying as the sequences where random words from the songs’ lyrics pop up on the screen. I understand that the intent is to have the power of the music wash over us, but the wallpapering is a hinder, not an aid, to the sound.
Although the doc is annoyed by such stylistic hiccups that try and fail to capture Walker’s power on screen, for the most part, 30th Century Man is a fascinating portrait of a rock and roll enigma. It’s enjoyable whether or not you’re a music fan, and I swear this is the last time ever that I clarify that I am not one.