It is truly a shame that, two years after its first public screenings, Stephen Kijak's documentary SCOTT WALKER 30 CENTURY MAN has yet to score a US release. The current word is that the film will receive US theatrical distribution in the fall. But, tired of waiting and being a 21 century man who doesn't have to, I broke down and ordered a copy of Verve Pictures' Region 2 disc from Amazon.co.uk, which streeted about a year ago. The film's own subtext seems to prophesy its lack of (or belated) exposure in America as inevitable, because here in the land of Top 40 radio, artists like Scott Walker are not understood. It's a shame, because as music documentaries go, this one is about as good as they come. Kijak tells a story, one that has elements of mystery and moments of epiphany, and one that stands as a source of great inspiration to anyone toiling in any branch of the arts.
Kijak, whose previous documentary CINEMANIA was a somewhat frightening portrait of New York area moviegoers whose love of film tipped over (or plummeted freely) into signs of psychosis, here turns his attention to what some might view as a similar case. Scott Walker -- born Scott Engel in 1945, not far from Cincinnati, Ohio -- rose to fame in 1965 as one third of The Walker Brothers, an American group of three unrelated young men who adopted a common family name. (The whole idea of The Ramones was a pop historic reference to them.) The Walker Brothers inverted the British Invasion by relocating from the West coast to London, where they recorded three albums (two in the US) and many singles, including a couple of transatlantic hits ("Make It Easy On Yourself", "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"). Somehow, despite chart success, they maintained US anonymity while taking England by storm. Their UK fan club was reportedly bigger than that of The Beatles, and singer Lulu admits to having a terrible crush on Scott, the cute one. "Is he still cute?" she wants to know.
Scott penned a number of the Walkers' increasingly fantastic B-sides and became the breakout star of the group but, behind his dark Foster Grants, he professed having no interest in money; his only interest was in expressing himself musically, wherever that happened to take him -- and being a young man of taste and intelligence, it took him far afield. His interest in European cinema led to an infatuation with the then-scandalous, theatrical songs of Jacques Brel, but during the period when he attempted to become a British chanteur, Scott continued to write his own increasingly abstract songs and honing one of the most distinctive voices ever raised in pop music -- a deep crooner's voice often seemingly at odds with his poetry and the soundscapes he constructed in support of it. Today, that voice sounds archetypally familiar, after decades of its commercial imitation by the likes of Bryan Ferry, David Sylvian and, especially, David Bowie (who repaid some dues by executive producing this film). It was a voice that could have easily gone mainstream and reaped every platinum album ever to fall into the laps of Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdinck, Rod Stewart and Michael Bolton, but that sort of career didn't interest Scott Walker.
His fourth solo album, SCOTT 4, is now regarded as his masterpiece but it heralded the end of his solo success. The movie skirts the issue, but offers lines to be read between about incidents of public drunkenness, no-shows at scheduled concerts, and an increasing discomfort with live performance. A Walker Brothers reunion yielded another Top 10 hit, but their third reunion album coincided with the dissolution of their record company, encouraging Scott to follow his Muse to the end with his contributions to the record. Spacy, adventurous and nonlinear, Scott's contribution to the album NITE FLIGHTS pointed the way to a resuscitated solo career that is second to none in terms of artistic integrity. Looking over the lyrics to one of his older solo compositions, no less than Brian Eno chuckles ruefully, "It's humiliating... after all this time, we [musicians] still haven't moved past this."
Narrated by Sara Kestelman (ZARDOZ), SCOTT WALKER 30 CENTURY MAN skips over some individual albums in telling its story but does paint a compelling portrait of an artist capable of working only on his own terms. In an extraordinary coup, Kijak scored the cooperation of the secretive Walker himself, who is shown in original interviews, on the set of a film directing the live performance of his original score, and in the recording studio during the making of his solo album THE DRIFT. Remarkably for someone whose truly avant garde music has been described as abrasive, inaccessible, abyssal and suicidally dark ("This isn't a funk session," he once cautioned a collaborator in the studio), Scott Walker personally projects an almost wholesome image and still speaks with a Midwestern accent after decades spent overseas; nevertheless, he speaks about his music and his goals for his music with unyielding focus and passion. He admits to suffering from nightmares and outsized emotions, noting that everything in his world seems "big" to him, but unlike some other composers (Brian Wilson leaps to mind), he has never lost control of his vision or been broken by it.
In some ways, Scott Walker's greatest legacy to the greatest number of people will be his approach to career -- his refusal of easy, soulless, pretty-boy pop success and embrace of a more meaningful lifestyle predicated on artistic risk, his willingness to let ten years pass between albums -- rather than his actual music, which is extraordinary but hardly accessible to the average ears. That said, the film also embodies a moving introduction to, of defense of, Scott's music, particularly in a lengthy sequence that shows a number of interview subjects (including David Bowie, Sting, Jarvis Cocker, Marc Almond, Johnny Marr, Alison Goldfrapp and members of Radiohead) intently listening to individual songs and occasionally remarking on them. (These scenes take us to the core of the musician/listener relationship and remind us that this form of intimacy is where music truly lives, not in the charts or the loud car radios of people needing a "soundtrack to their lives.")
This film should be considered required viewing for artists of all kinds for the simple reason that it is so inspirational; it depicts a level of almost monastic consecration to one's craft that is so rare as to be easily mistaken for incipient insanity -- when it is the idea that the value of any music is dictated by the marketplace that is truly mad. French journalist Brian Gascoigne, a longtime devotée of the artist, speaks enviously of those people who have yet to discover Scott Walker's recorded works, and this film will surely seduce a good many viewers into seeking them out.
The 16:9 disc is attractive and features a number of brilliantly animated sequences assembled in illustration of the musical content. The audio is two-channel stereo only. The extras include a director's commentary, a trailer, and bonus interviews (none longer than 5m) with about a dozen people, including Walker's former manager Ed Bicknell, who admits to loaning Scott more money than he ever made from representing him, and that he'd do it all again in a heartbeat. "It's great music to fuck to," he grins -- and, when he says that, something clicks and we realize that this unclassifiable music and funk have something essential in common, after all.