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Space-Age Love Songs: Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

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Space-Age Love Songs: <em>Scott Walker: 30 Century Man</em>

Imperative to catch on the big screen, Stephen Kijak’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man opens today for one week only at the IFC Center in New York. There are other fleeting, theatrical engagements in the offing for early ’09 before this documentary, long denied to American audiences though it did smashingly well in the UK, settles onto DVD. But having first seen it 18 months ago in a real movie theater and then again last week on my laptop, I can state with certainty that Kijak’s collage-like approach to recreating 1960s pop music history, and tracing its influence through the subsequent decades, loses something in immediacy and intimacy on the small box. And the abstract visualizations that Kijak devises—soft-focused, delicately hallucinatory mosaics in orange and gold that feel all of a piece with Walker’s era and sensibility—cry out for the widest panorama.

Prior to this film (which I almost skipped, because the title seemed to promise a science-fiction extravaganza), I had neither heard of Scott Walker nor had the slightest familiarity with The Walker Brothers, the British band that made the Ohio-born émigré an icon of mod London. Yet it doesn’t take much more than a snippet of his 1967 song “Orpheus,” played in the movie’s first scene, to fall under the singer-songwriter’s incandescent spell. Even before you hear the stunning baritone voice, those orchestrated strings swirling across the breeze of sound give one the sensation of skiing. And then Walker sings. He sings with clarity, with the unapologetic splendor of dulcet pipes. “Beauty,” in this instance, seems too reticent a term. Beyond this, the contrast between the fine grain of his voice and “imagery so strong and graphic” (in Angela Morley’s words) creates another layer of tension within the bristling intensity of Delius and Sibelius-inspired arrangements. Through a crescendo of horns and massed strings intrudes the lyric, “His bloated, belching figure stomps/He may crash through the ceiling soon,” in “Montague Terrace (in Blue),” an elegant, even buoyant saga of a shabby apartment building and its grubby tenants.

Only minutes in, the filmmaker establishes the latter-day Walker’s celebrated reclusiveness. The overlay of suspenseful dramatics in Kijak’s opening montage isn’t entirely necessary. The voice of someone off-camera intones, “He’s got a way of disappearing. I don’t think he ever wants to be seen,” as the soundtrack hums ominously, punctuated by intermittent drumbeats. This prepares us for something awful, which mercifully never quite materializes; Walker, in his early sixties at the time the interviews were filmed, emerges as a modest, well-grounded, pleasingly articulate, low-key individual. The long, dark night of this former idol—precipitated by the commercial failure of his ambitious solo recording Scott 4—here finds itself encapsulated within a single parenthetical phrase: “I got worse and worse with, you know, the imbibing.” And that, refreshingly, is it; neither Kijak nor Walker has the inclination to relive the artist’s alcohol issues from some thirty-five, thirty-six years ago.

Kijak interweaves sessions shot at Metropolis Studios in 2004 (where Walker recorded his most recent CD, The Drift) with archival footage of The Way Things Were in the swinging 60s. Initially the bassist in the Walker Brothers, Scott took over the lead vocal from John Maus in 1965 when their label insisted that “the guy with the lowest voice” be the one to croon a ballad called “Love Her.” What had primarily been a fantastic ride through the club scene “got serious” at that point; seeing and hearing the then 21-year-old Walker, with that mature voice emanating from a baby face, perform such an achingly sincere song of regret, it isn’t exactly a mystery why the fans went wild.

Walker, who stopped singing in front of audiences somewhere in the mid-70s, may have granted Kijak access in order to promote The Drift, but this movie’s unassailable heart belongs to the singer’s early triumphs. After the Walker Brothers broke up, the BBC granted solo Scott his own television series. It was a short-lived honor. Walker eschewed singing hits, instead preferring to share his newfound ardor for the chansons of Jacques Brel. The Beeb canceled the show after a mere six airings and—in an incalculable loss—scrapped the reels. Kijak and his cinematographer/co-editor Grant Gee cobbled together the only existing fragments: a few stills of Walker singing with a pre-sex-change Morley (then known as Wally Stott) at the piano, set to audio of the Golden Boy earnestly announcing a Brel number, “This song deals with a sadomasochistic love affair.”

From this, the filmmakers segue to footage of Walker exuberantly singing Brel’s “Mathilde” on the Dusty Springfield show. Even though the song itself strikes me as egregious, it’s a viscerally thrilling performance nonetheless. The sight of a gorgeous young person at the peak of his powers, investing the material with absolute conviction, transcends the somewhat purple lyrics about changing the linens on the bed. He believes in the worth of what he’s singing so deeply that it bedazzled me as well. Gavin Friday, in comparing the sweaty, morose originals to Walker’s punchy interpretations, asserts that he “sang them like a Greek god.” Kijak inserts a brief clip of Brel, his face drenched in perspiration, a man ill at ease in his own unglamorous skin. Seeing them side-by-side, as it were, Friday’s claim is all but impossible to dispute.

The Walker charm and mystique are perhaps most evident in an off-camera monologue, an enchanting ramble by way of setting up a song, when the singer was a wise old man of 25: “I came from the Beatnik era in America—they labeled it the Beatnik era, anyway. I read Kerouac, and I dug progressive jazz, and got kicked out of schools and hitchhiked across America, and the whole bit, you see. I met a lot of wonderful people; relationships were ephemeral, but one of the best I’ve ever known.” Then he launches into the sublime “It’s Raining Today,” a languid 1969 composition that’s at once stark and expansive. It begins with the violins, violas, and cellos pulled taut, a sound suggestive of stretched steel in sub zero Fahrenheit (one also hears this chilly, minimalist scraping in passages by the French composers Milhaud, Magnard, and Koechlin) as the strings hold the same note for well beyond 16 bars. Walker’s unflappable voice and a gently strumming guitar propel this miniature epic forward, a crinkle of wind chimes pealing across the dissonant bows at a steady interval, until the string section, its dark violas seemingly caught by the throat, takes a screeching, precipitous glide before the bridge. I’m tempted to call it lovely, inebriating menace in its purest form.

Kijak includes brief statements from musicians in rapt admiration of Walker: among them, Brian Eno, Johnny Marr, Alison Goldfrapp. The director will sometimes overlap recollections, so that we have visual echoing from one person’s reminiscences to another’s, a beguiling effect that lets the musing expressions on their faces tell the story. Kijak splits the screen into fourths as Dot Allison listens to an LP. On the upper left, there’s a close-up of a record player needle on spinning vinyl; on the upper right, song titles appear, then the space goes black; the lower left, black; and the lower right, Allison reflectively listening. In complete contrast to the MTV-style mayhem that undermined Christina Clausen’s wretched documentary The Universe of Keith Haring, Kijak and Gee dissolve these partitioned images with no fuss and no attention-grabbing spectacle. It’s a much more respectful way to present the film’s witnesses—the frames within frames that the filmmakers use act almost as windows onto the memory processes of the participants.

Kijak didn’t interview Paul Weller, yet as I was plopping MP3s into a playlist last night, matching songs from Walker’s Boy Child compilation with The Style Council’s 1988 near-masterpiece Confessions of a Pop Group, I found Walker’s late 1960s work dovetails splendidly with Weller’s. Both of them used lushness of harmonies and “classical” arranging to languorously subversive ends. Try segueing Walker’s “The War is Over (Sleepers)” (it has the wonderful lyric, “A distant waltz turns in the head of an old lady’s night, waiting hands unfold within the dark…”) into Weller’s “It’s a Very Deep Sea”; these recordings seem inexorably made for each other. Likewise, there’s kinship between the harp glissandi and isolated pealing bells of Walker’s “Copenhagen” and the bouncy, vibraphone-saturated da-da-das of The Style Council’s meeting with The Swingle Singers in “The Story of Someone’s Shoe.”

If Scott Walker: 30 Century Man falters, it’s mainly because Walker’s taste deserts him in his last two outings in the recording studio. 1995’s Tilt and 2006’s The Drift are pretentious messes, quasi-industrial renunciations of romanticism that play like the ugliest conceivable betrayals of the singer’s past accomplishments. While I understand that Walker wouldn’t want to repeat himself, I lament that no one dared tell him his newer work was crap, and that he was essentially wasting himself on externalizations of his nightmares. (Only Marc Almond expresses disapproval of Walker’s change in direction—decrying Tilt as “terrible, awful.”)

In making The Drift, Walker speaks of having been mesmerized, as a child, by newsreel footage of Mussolini’s carcass hung up for public display alongside the corpse of his mistress, Claretta Petacci, who had insisted on being executed with her lover. From this emerges the dreadful song “Clara (Benito’s Dream),” a morbid cataloging of her physical features as they appeared in death. It is the sort of gross and pointless exercise that appeals to a certain kind of aesthete as intellectual candy, its pride in its own distastefulness driven home by a percussionist smacking around a raw slab of beef ribs.

Walker also makes the following admission, by way of rationalizing why, on The Drift, he pinches his voice up an octave or so to the tenor range: “Sometimes with a baritone voice, it tranquilizes people. It has that effect, so people stop listening to what they’re hearing. If the voice is pitched as the lyrics, sort of vertiginously, it’s going to be much more effective placed there.”

I disagree. In doing so, his chief asset becomes such a nervous quaver that I tuned him—and the lyrics—out. Some of us want to be tranquilized.

Still, do not let Walker’s lapse deter you from embracing Kijak’s valentine. The highest compliment I can pay the movie is that it makes the past seem more ineffably alive than the present. There’s gold in those sunlit glimpses of the teenaged Walker, when he was still Scott Engel from Hamilton, Ohio, already crooning and recording and plastering fan club paraphernalia with his preternaturally handsome visage.

And there’s much pleasure to be had in the unlikeliest turns. A 1975 country-themed reunion of the Walker Brothers proved a mild success, although, in the video footage we’re shown, it was nothing at all like their 1960s incarnation. Performing the title tune, “No Regrets,” the Brothers (who were never related) seem almost devoid of energy as they plug away at the slow tempo. Chugging along, their radio-friendly dawdle sounds vaguely reminiscent of the music Mark Knopfler would later write for the film Local Hero, the sort of British country airs that suggest no one’s in any especial hurry to get anyplace.

House contributor N.P. Thompson has written for Willamette Week, New York Press, and Northwest Asian Weekly. He self-publishes moviesintofilm.com.