Saturday, January 24, 2009

Scott Walker 30 Century Man

Opening night at Opera Plaza in San Francisco, featuring a live appearance and QnA with director Stephen Kijak.  

Kijak has lovingly made a music documentary of expatriate American Scott Walker, né Engel, who went from teen idol to iconic British "MOR" pop star to recluse.  Walker went from making four albums in three years in the late 60s to making one album a decade in the 90s and 2000s. Fairly early in his solo career he stopped touring or playing live; the commercial failure of Scott 4 (his first album of all original material) became an insurmountable detriment. Nevertheless, his four early solo albums became highly influential and he became a cult figure homaged by the likes of Marc Almond and Julian Cope in the 1980s when he had all but disappeared.  

This is a Jacques Brel song with English lyrics by Mort Shuman.  They both also performed Brel's signature song, "Ne Me Quitte Pas," in English as "If You Go Away." Walker's own compositions were little stories set to music, much like the "Elinor Rigby" type lyrics of the Beatles or Blur.  He often sang of sad lonely women, tattered lives, the "hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" viewpoint as once described by Pink Floyd, but with an added veneer of colorfully poetic visual imagery similar to Nick Drake's.  One of many remarkable aspects of Scott Walker which could have been further investigated is how and why did an American become so quintessentially British, while not even faking the accent?  (At the QnA, Kijak brought in new information about the Walkers avoiding Viet Nam by remaining in the UK; this would have been great to address in the film!)

Scott Walker resurfaced again in 1995 with Tilt, but his voice, though still croony, was not the same. 

Walker's best known music is infused with drama and haunting arrangements, performed by live orchestral accompaniment. Sadly we learn little about Walker's personal life from the film; as a recluse, he is a tough nut to crack.  Despite years of courting and cooperating with Walker, labels, management companies, handlers and the like, Kijak could film only one 40 minute interview with the singer.  Does he have kids?  Has he ever been in love?  Who does he have relationships with? How has his personal life influenced his art?  I still don't know.

The film feels bifurcated into an "early Scott" section, with memorabilia, old clips, photographs, and historical anecdotes, and a "making of" section about his most recent album.  There's not much to connect the two, but that's ostensibly because... there isn't much to connect the two.

Like many documentaries of obscure cult musicians (see also my write up of the Arthur Russel documentary), Kijak's film is overly respectful of its subject.  Celebrity interviews (Jarvis Cocker, Sting, Radiohead, David Bowie, Marc Almond) are there largely (but not entirely) to lend legitimacy to the subject matter.  

By far the best part is interviews with old arrangers and musicians, talking about guitar parts and string parts, during which Kijak plays the exact snippets of music they are referring to.  It is a fascinating and informative technique.  Too often documentaries about musicians don't bother to include any real musical information.  By including producers, engineers, arrangers, composers, and musicians in the film, Kijak gives it a truly gratifying depth and insight.  Kijak is also upfront when he acknowledges he doesn't focus on Scott's albums from the 70s which he casts in the light of hackwork done for financial or business obligation.

The DVD should come out this summer, and hopefully there will be some extras to look forward to.  And this film makes me really really really want to see a documentary about Angela Morley, who was born Wally Stott, and who did orchestra arrangements for Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield, and the first three Scott Walker solo albums.  Wally had gender reassignment surgery in 1972, the same year as composer Wendy Carlos.   Angela Morley also composed one of my favorite film scores, Watership Down.  (No joke.)  She worked in Hollywood for twenty years.  Here's a bit from a BBC documentary about her.

There ya go. That would be a great documentary. Kijak has some great interviews of her. Sadly she died on January 14, 2009 at the age of 84. I don't know if Stephen Kijak knows. He didn't mention it. She was a truly amazing person. Enjoy some of her music from Watership Down.

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