Friday, January 23, 2009

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

The music industry has borne witness to many a strange career arc, but few are equal to that of Scott Walker. His unlikely sojourn from '60s teen idol to Garbo-like recluse to contemporary avant-garde composer is the subject of a fascinating new documentary by Stephen Kijak (Never Met Picasso, Cinemania). Scott Walker: 30 Century Man premiered well over two years ago at the London Film Festival and is just now getting a Bay Area release. It opens this week at Landmark Theaters' Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. (Director Kijak will appear in person for both opening night screenings in San Francisco).

Ohio-born Scott Engel was one-third of The Walker Brothers, a band which contained no real brothers or anyone named Walker. They found modest success working the clubs of Sunset Strip in the early '60s, and the film introduces them with a clip of their first TV appearance on "Hollywood A Go Go." A move to London in 1965 proved extremely fortuitous, with Scott's handsome looks and dreamy baritone croon providing their ticket to success. Never more than a two-hit wonder in the U.S. (the Righteous Brothers/Phil Spector-sounding "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" and "Make It Easy On Yourself"), they exploded in the U.K., at one point having more fan club members than The Beatles. Before one Dublin concert date, their tour van was literally turned upside down by a mob of rioting teenage girls.

The pressures of stardom and intra-band tensions led to a 1968 break-up, which afforded Scott the opportunity for artistic growth. He became the first English language interpreter of Jacques Brel, and his first immensely popular solo albums were a mix of Brel, eclectic standards and his own self-penned ballads. These
compositions reflected the American transplant's adopted English-ness and were steeped in the "beautiful gloom" aesthetic of British kitchen sink realism. 1969's "Scott 4," his first album composed of all original material, was considered a masterpiece by many, but was an unfortunate commercial failure. In the film, Scott reveals that the following half-decade constituted his "artistic lost years," during which time he recorded mostly covers and dallied with country and western.

To everyone's surprise The Walker Brothers reunited in 1975, but the reconciliation produced two undistinguished albums. With their record company about to go under, they were instructed to do whatever the hell they wanted on their third and final release. The result was 1978's groundbreaking "Nite Flights," the title song of which was later covered by David Bowie on his "Black Tie White Noise" album (Bowie also executive-produced this film). Since then, Scott has released only three more albums, each more atonal and experimental than the next. Personality has been drained from his vocals, and the music exists in a sonic realm somewhere between "chord and dis-chord." For example, during a studio recording session in the film, a bass line is obtained by banging trash cans and punching a slab of meat. Scott also composed the original music for Leos Carax' 1999 film Pola X, as well as music for the ballet "And Who Shall Go To The Ball? And What Shall Go To The Ball?" Soundtracks for both of these were released, and excerpts are seen in the documentary.

To tell this incredible tale, director Kijak has assembled a wealth of archival material, as well as some surprisingly forthcoming interview footage of his notoriously reclusive subject. He's also enlisted testimonials from a partial Who's Who of British music of the past 40 years, including Bowie, Marc Almond, Johnny Marr, Jarvis Cocker, Radiohead, Brian Eno, Julian Cope, Damon Albarn and Lulu. In the film's most memorable sequence, we're taken chronologically through Scott Walker's discography, watching as the above-mentioned musical luminaries listen and react to their favorite songs. Their enthusiasm and delight for this modern day "poet and composer of the unconscious" is thoroughly contagious.

For a bit of Compare and Contrast, I offer a clip of The Walker Brothers performing "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" on German TV, followed by a clip from
Pola X, in which an industrial warehouse orchestra performs one of Scott Walker's cacophonous compositions. And after that, the trailer for Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.

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