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Scott Walker is an American composer and poet (original name Noel Scott Engel) who has lived in England for many years. Originally he was a handsome Sixties pop star who sang with the group The Walker Brothers in a "warm, sepulchral baritone" (as Eddie Cockrell puts it in 'Variety') that made young girls scream and, in England, was more popular than the Beatles. After a couple of albums the group disbanded (though reuniting for a while in the Seventies), and Scott went solo. Gradually over many years, moving haltingly at first from covers of other people's songs to increasingly complex and personal compositions in albums a decade apart, Walker has established a reputation as a unique musical figure focused on recording, not public performance, which the screaming girls taught him to hate. His haunting, surreal, emotionally demanding pieces, all the way back to the Sixties, have influenced Radiohead and The Cocteau Twins. Vocally admired by Sting, Brian Eno, and David Bowie (executive producer here), he receives on screen testimonials from Ute Lemper, Jarvis Cocker, Lulu, Marc Almond, Damon Albarn, Allison Goldfrapp, and Gavin Friday.
Kijak's film is interesting enough to attract new converts to this cult artist. It's also a pleasure to watch because it's so well made. It's convincing, elegant, revealing, seamless, and frequently quite beautiful.
The film begins by teasing viewers with the historically reclusive nature of the man ever since he gave up public performance some time in the Seventies. Then it springs its bombshell: Scott has consented to a lengthy interview for the film. '30 Century Man' is not so much a life as a life-in-art. We learn little about personal matters such as depression and a drinking problem but everything about his style and imagination and the stories of the individual albums. The beauty of the film is as a portrait of musical evolution describing changing ensembles, recording methods, and moods from album to album, the latest many years apart. It's also the story of an artist influencing other artists, rather than prancing before the public.
Before we get to that, there's enough footage of TV performances to show that The Walker Brothers (who were neither brothers nor named Walker) were a conventional cute singing package. M.O.R. slop, you might say, especially considering their peak year of 1965 was the time when Dylan released 'Highway 61 Revisited.' On his own, Scott wanted to do Jacques Brel, the angst-ridden, sweaty French songwriter. He did Brel smoothly, in English, with that mellifluous baritone of his.
Later when the solo compositions emerge, he moves further and further toward art compositions with horror-show moodiness and highly crafted sound landscapes. The latest songs some say are not songs at all but something else, haunting tone poems with words born, Scott says, out of a life of bad dreams. Some of the images used to illustrate later compositions, however, still put one in a Seventies mood, though the dreamy floating patterns, colors, and texts have nothing dated about them. Maybe even the mature Scott Walker style grows out of a strain of Seventies English rock impressionism. (That may partly explain Walker's remaining in the UK, but he was also in love with Europe through its films.) The lyrics, often floated dreamily on screen with lines in space, are occasionally quite strange.
One suave passage traces key songs from all Walker's albums through time to show he did interesting work even early in his solo career. While the music is playing multiple screens show musicians listening and commenting on the work.
Though the film doesn't say so, Walker's lyrics from the Eighties on, when the albums became less frequent, are stronger and freer.
'Cripple fingers hit the muezzin yells/some had Columbine some had specks/Cripple fingers hit the rounds of shells/some had clinging vine some had specks
The good news you cannot refuse/The bad news is there is no news' ('Patriot,' a single, 1995)
Excerpts we hear (and partly see) show Walker is adventurous and extravagant (but a deft and calmly focused director) in studio orchestrations, using lots of strings and building a large wooden box to get just the right percussion sound. Another time a percussionist must hit a large slab of meat. Doing the music for Leos Carax's film 'Pola X,' he has a large studio full of loud percussionists. Classical musicians are instructed to play violins to imitate the sound of German planes coming in to bomb English towns--not an easy day's work. It's all very intriguing, suggesting a personal musical world that's scary, but still welcomes you to come in.
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