Pink Floyd: The Wall Review
Films made about rock stars tend, on the whole, not to be the most scintillating or interesting of experiences; for every success, like Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous or This is Spinal Tap, there’s a Purple Rain or Rock Star. However, Pink Floyd were never the most conventional of bands, and so their epic concept album The Wall might be expected to be a rather different style of film. Under the direction of Alan Parker and Roger Waters’ screenplay, the album is literally brought to life through often brilliant imagery; the big question is whether it really works as anything more than a 90-minute music video.
The plot is more or less the same as the album’s plot, if of course a concept album can be said to have any kind of coherent storyline. Pink (Geldof) is a burnt-out rock star, stuck in a hotel room watching television and recalling his early life, growing up under the over-protective domination of his widowed mother, as well as his subsequent failed marriage, descent into virtual madness and final state of becoming ‘comfortably numb’, before an ending that may appear to solve his problems, or may only exacerbate them. Throw in numerous fantasy sequences, a few odd little cameos from the likes of Bob Hoskins (doing his best Harold Shand bit as Pink’s manager) and Eleanor David (as Pink’s unfaithful wife), and, of course, some of the finest songs ever written by one of the great rock bands, and the scene is set for an intriguing exercise in (admittedly self-indulgent) introspection by Roger Waters.
Alan Parker has frequently stated (and, indeed, does so on both documentaries here) that he tries to work in different genres with every film that he makes. However, given that nearly all his films are either a) musicals (Evita, Bugsy Malone, The Wall, Fame), b) dark and miserable exercises in failed humanity (Angel Heart, Midnight Express, The Wall, Angela’s Ashes), or c) feature small children in pivotal roles (Bugsy Malone, Angela’s Ashes, The Wall, Come See the Paradise), it’s tempting to think that his agent has been misrepresenting scripts to him. Nevertheless, he brings a very cinematic quality to some of the film, from the quasi-fascist rallies staged by a demented Pink to the recreations of the WW2 battles in which Pink/Waters’ father died at. However, his contributions are often overshadowed by Gerald Scarfe’s extraordinary animation; in arguably the film’s finest individual sequence, the song ‘Goodbye, Blue Skies’ is accompanied by truly nightmarish imagery of London being bombed. Unfortunately, the flipside is that the film’s imagery occasionally doesn’t work; ‘Comfortably Numb’, which is one of the greatest songs ever written, is accompanied by a slightly silly sequence of Pink as a decomposing zombie, when the glacial, cold music would appear to imply something far more low-key and disturbing.
Parker later repeated much the same style of music-led, dialogue-free storytelling in Evita, albeit with less success; there, he was handicapped by the Lloyd Webber score, which, although excellent in its own right, was still a fairly conventional piece of musical theatre. Of course, the score to The Wall had been showcased by the band in a series of groundbreaking concerts the year before, and so Waters had a very good idea of what he wanted, which frequently conflicted with Parker’s idea of what the film should be like. This leads to an inevitable disparity between the brilliant and the banal throughout- for instance, the scenes of Pink’s childhood occasionally feel more like a Ridley Scott Hovis advert than the edgy, insecure state of flux suggested by the music. It’s also a very depressing film to watch all the way through, due to the sheer, relentless grimness of the subject matter and style; Parker’s skill at making an audience feel uneasy cannot be underestimated, but the overall experience is a draining one.
Of course, for many, the music is the most important thing here, and it would not be hyperbolic to describe this as Pink Floyd’s finest overall achievement. While there is some inevitable filler, especially towards the close of the film (‘Vera’? ‘Bring the Boys Back Home?’), there are also a plethora of great songs, from the most miserable disco song ever recorded (‘Another Brick in the Wall part 2’) through epic ballads (‘Mother’ and ‘Nobody Home’) to the utterly awesome ‘Comfortably Numb’, which is, arguably, as definitive a statement of the human condition as anything written by Nietzsche, Sartre or Donne; the irony is, of course, that David Gilmour was responsible for the most famous sections, meaning that those who have long championed Waters as ‘the soul and light of Pink Floyd’, to quote one French advert for his upcoming solo tour, might well have to think twice about such a statement. Recommended for all Floyd and Alan Parker fans; others might well wish to proceed with more caution.
A very pleasing 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is provided, which is not without some minor problems. Colours are clear and sharp in the lighter scenes, but tend to be slightly muddy when the film becomes darker (as it does quite often, both literally and figuratively), leading to some occasional problems seeing exactly what’s going on in scenes. However, it’s obvious that a restoration job of sorts has been undertaken; although the print isn’t blemish-free, it’s still far better than most 20-year films would look under similar conditions.
Two soundtracks are provided, a PCM stereo mix and a Dolby 5.1 mix. As usual, the PCM mix is superior to the Dolby one, due to its uncompressed nature; the music is presented in a far fuller and more ‘realistic’ way, certainly sounding as good as the CD, albeit with some occasional over-prominence being given to the vocals. The 5.1 mix, meanwhile, sounds rather muddy throughout, and the songs occasionally sound rather muffled, as if they had been recorded from inside a wall of their own. Therefore, the PCM soundtrack is the one to go with.
Although definitely weighted towards ‘the film’ as an artistic endeavour rather than ‘the music’, there is a decent amount of supplementary material for fans of either (or both.) First up is a commentary by Waters and Scarfe. Belying his grim reputation, Waters is frequently very funny as he goes off on tangents that have nothing to do with the film, Pink Floyd or anything even remotely normal; meanwhile, Scarfe offers some valuable insights into the animated sequences. There’s obviously some overlap with the documentaries featured, but this is still a very listenable track.
Other extras (as reached on a clever-clever but rather irritating menu system) include two lengthy documentaries, one an original 25-minute piece from 1982, the other a more up-to-date 45-minute feature. The original is cursed with a horribly intrusive voiceover and too much footage from the film inserted at apparently random moments, but there are some interesting little bits, especially Parker’s brief contributions, where he brings a more detached perspective. The more up-to-date documentary features interviews with Parker, Waters, Scarfe and others; at its best when concentrating specifically on the links between the music and the film (and with an oh-so-true bit when Waters admits regretting the complete absence of humour in the film), it also has a few rather dull stretches where it concentrates on the more technical aspects of the production.
The usual suspects round up the rest of the package; a trailer (which is so bleak that it’s no wonder that the film was something of a flop at the box office), the deleted ‘Hey You’ sequence, which (don’t laugh) was apparently cut for being ‘too dark’, the original music video for ‘Another Brick in the Wall part 2’, the usual production photos, and, apparently, some ‘hidden buttons’, although the navigation system meant that finding these was all but impossible. The biggest absence here is obviously input from other members of the band; however, given that Waters has not been on speaking terms with any of them for the last fifteen years or so, a reconciliation brought about by the wonders of DVD was hardly on the cards.
A bleak, flawed but occasionally brilliant film with an undeniably superb soundtrack is presented on a technically strong disc with some good extras. Recommended, but cautiously; the film manages the tricky task of being far more depressing than the original source material, and is perhaps best taken in small doses as fragments of the second-longest music video (after Parker’s Evita) ever produced.