Film review: Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
Just saw the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man last night with my pal Danny P. I’ve been waiting for the film to get Stateside distribution for a while (it was completed a few years ago and has been cruising the festival circuit since) so needless to say I was pretty excited to finally see it. At one point a few months ago I almost broke down and bought the movie on dvd but, being a big-screen kind of person, I’m glad I waited. (I think a film-watching experience is almost always enhanced by seeing a movie in a room full of people–for instance, seeing the excellent Arlene Dahl flick Wicked As They Come last Saturday at the sold-out Castro Theater with 1,400 other noir-crazed people was infinitely more thrilling than watching it alone in my house on Turner Movie Classics—but I digress).
Anyways, 30 Century Man traces the career ot Scott Walker, one of the greatest pop singers you’ve probably never heard of. With his 1960s trio The Walker Brothers (not really brothers, and not really named Walker), Scott busted open the British pop charts with a string of top ten hits including the soaring Burt Bacharach ballad Make It Easy On Yourself and the peppy gloom-pop classic The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, both number one singles in Britain in the mid-sixties. Both Scott and his nominal brother John were pretty young things and they quickly became the subject of much teenybopper love in the two years that they were topping the UK charts. Scott in particular was an object of desire, not only for his blond Beatle bob but for his sweetly melancholic baritone voice and his talent for imbuing banal pop tunes with a suffusion of emotion and depth. Through interviews and archival footage the film does a good job depicting the substantial Walkermania in the UK at the time.
After the Walker Brothers broke up in 1967, Scott reached a creative peak in four solo albums that contained a mix of orchestral pop songs ala Dusty Springfield (he shared the same producer, Johnny Franz, with the equally brilliant, mercurial Springfield), Scott’s own self-penned, poetic musings, and several covers of the songs of Belgian music-hall singer/composer Jacques Brel. The first three of these esoteric collections climbed high on the British charts, but the fourth, consisting only of Scott’s own compositions, failed miserably. Scott’s career went into eclipse until 1981, when The Teardrop Explodes’ frontman Julian Cope (amusingly described in the film as “a foremost expert on Britain’s stone circles”) packaged several of Scott’s songs in a none-too-subtly titled compilation, The Fire Escape In The Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. Suddenly, after nearly 15 years, Scott Walker was cool again.
30 Century Man includes interviews with a veritable who’s who of edgy British pop singers—Jarvis Cocker, David Bowie (who also executive-produced the movie), Brian Eno, Marc Almond, Ute Lemper and a host of others—who speak admiringly of Scott’s singing and songwriting. The film utilizes the interesting technique of shooting each person listening intently to a Scott Walker song, their faces transformed by pleasure or emotion. As one who has been repeatedly captivated by Walker’s recordings, particularly Scott’s rich, lavish mid-sixties solo albums, I found these passages to be particularly effective in capturing his music’s ineffable allure.
The latter portion of the film focuses on Scott’s last three solo albums, starting from 1984 and released over a span of 22 years (!). During that period Walker’s music took a severe left turn and these collections are dark, haunting, and decisively anti-pop and anti-commercial. In the film Walker states that once he’s finished a recording he never listens to it again, and certainly some people feel the same way about this part of his oeuvre (a quick peek at Metacritic’s user comments of his last album, The Drift (2006) reveals only two ratings, 10 or 0, with almost no middle ground).
30 Century Man features an extensive interview with Walker who, for a renowned recluse, is very affable and articulate. Now in his sixties, Walker retains his Midwestern twang (he was born in Hamilton, OH) and resembles a grown-up Opie from The Andy Griffith Show. The film nicely intercuts Walker’s intelligent and straightforward commentary with footage documenting the wacky process of recording The Drift, which included a percussionist pummeling a slab of ribs, a metal garbage can being slammed on a large wooden box, and an orchestral string section being asked to replicate the sound of tanks approaching from fifty meters away. Subject matter ranges from the collapse of the World Trade Center to Elvis Presley’s dead twin to Mussolini’s mistress, who insisted on being shot with her lover.
Like Scott himself, 30 Century Man is coy about revealing the personal details of Walker’s life, instead focusing on his creative output. While some might find this a flawed strategy, in a mediaworld littered with Behind The Music and The Osbornes, I though it was a refreshing change of pace. In the end, it’s all about the music, and that’s fine with me.
Three phases of Scott Walker’s career: