Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man


The British comic Lenny Henry once compared Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck by saying that whereas Tom Jones, on his best nights, was like catching lightning in a bucket, Engelbert Humperdinck was the bucket. Well then, Scott Walker, is lightning. Elusive, brilliant, charged, unpredictable and capable of producing a jolt you never recover from.

For those unfamiliar with his work Scott Walker is, at once, both incredibly easy and utterly impossible to describe. Think of a schmaltzy crooner, Andy Williams or Robert Goulet would suffice, and imagine them teaming up with Arnold Schoenberg to produce an album of pop songs. A pithy description, but one that widely misses the mark. You pretty much have to hear him to get him. And even when you do hear him, you could easily dismiss him as schlock. For those who do get him, and love him, the music he's produced from the 60's on is a series of bombastic, melodramatic earthquakes or as Marc Almond put it, "he could sing 'Three Blind Mice' and make it sound like only song in the world."

As a cult figure, Walker has inspired many musicians, the first and foremost being David Bowie, but continuing with an honor roll that includes Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Morrissey and Alison Goldfrapp. He has also inspired a number of filmmakers to seek him as a collaborator or as a subject. Leos Carax spent years getting him to do the soundtrack for Pola X and many equally persistent directors have tried doing documentaries on him. Until now all have failed, but in Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Stephen Kijak profiles Walker with a rapturousness that is utterly befitting. Partly a tie"n for Walker's latest album 'The Drift', Kijak's film surveys Walker's career with the assistance of the producers and arrangers who worked on his albums. In fact, the film is often most interesting when discussing the nature of Walker's music and how it blurs consonance and dissonance, creating a dark tonal cloud familiar to fans of Kubrick and Lynch soundtracks [and for Kubrick fans, Ligeti does get a mention]. In addition we get a raft of appreciation and insight from Almond, Cocker and Goldfrapp as well as Damon Albarn, Brian Eno, Johnny Marr, Simon Raymonde and a bloke named David Bowie, who also acted as the film's executive producer. As the cherry on top, Walker emerges from his cocoon to grant a friendly interview. As an additional fillip, the film sports a tony voice-over and several visualizations of Walker's songs which, like Walker himself, will seem ecstatic to some and absurd to others.

Although the film has been quite well received, there have been some who have rapped it as a fan's movie, a critique well summed up by Diedrich Diederichsen in Artforum when he says, "We do not find out anything about Walker's view of the world or what drives him... What we are dealing with here is a fan dedicated to presenting his hero as a visionary genius." True. It is a fan's film. But I'm a fan! But seriously, Walker is a pretty hermetic subject. He's not a common taste. By definition, anyone drawn to a film about him would be a fan. As such, the film fairly well delivers your money's worth of revelation. The occasional misstep aside [for some odd reason Kijak includes a blurb from Sting, whose material can only be described as the absolute antithesis of Walker's] most every interview is relevant and on-point and Walker himself is far more responsive than one could have hoped. Does the film tell everything? No. But as Kijak pointed out in the Q&A after the screening, he understood the boundaries of what could be investigated and played within them. Ironically, Kijak's respect for Walker's privacy and, more importantly, mystery not only accounts for the success of the film as a production [it literally could not have been made without the cooperation of Walker and Bowie and their respective management], but also for the success of the film as a profile. Although it might be interesting to discover a few revelatory ticks of Walker's psyche it wouldn't add a thing to the appreciation of his work and, like Lynch and Kubrick's films, deep textual analysis is best left to the pages of journals like Artforum. So, yes, 30 Century Man places Walker on a velvet-draped pedestal, but as Atom Egoyan remarked at Berlin, "I have rarely seen a biographical documentary that is able to make the viewer experience the perspective of a devoted fan, a concerned friend, and a complete stranger at the same time."

Endnote: Kathy Fennessy, who has already posted an item or two at SLOG on Scott Walker and from whom I shamelessly borrowed the Atom Egoyan quote, has an article on 30 Century Man in the upcoming issue of Resonance that should not be missed.


  1. Nice piece, Steven. It would've been cool if Kijak had found a way to work Morrisey and Nick Cave into the equation, but the line-up is pretty impressive as it is. I'm also quite fond of Lulu's quote: "Let's be honest, I had the biggest crush on him. First of all, the voice resonates with you, but he was so gorgeous."

  2. Thanks, Kathy.
    Agreed. It would have been cool to have Nick Cave and Morrissey and Stuart Staples and a whole bunch of other cats but, as Tom Kipp was telling me last night, Kijak's film consitutes something of a miracle, so we should be massively thankful that the film is as good as it is!
    I also agree with Lulu. Walker was rivetingly gorgeous, in way that reminded me of another brainy/beautiful 60's icon, Warren Beatty.