Scott Walker: 30 Century Man Review
The thing that I get accused of more than anything else while writing here is of not actually liking the music when reviewing a music DVD, either live or a collection of videos. In some cases, that's a fair criticism, certainly when taking on a Whitesnake, Europe or Fatboy Slim DVD to review, all of whom were gracious enough to produce suitably poor DVDs, but the case of Scott Walker is a more difficult one. Let me begin this by saying that I don't actually like Scott Walker. Or, better, let me clarify that by making clear that while I don't like Scott Walker's voice, I absolutely love the music he writes and records. But it's that much-celebrated voice that's the problem.
Like many artists before him, Scott Walker produced an album called Tilt that was described as being on the reaches of where rock meets the avant-garde. To be fair, those words were not Scott Walker's and while Tilt could be unsettling, it also had moments that, if you were determined enough to find a melody in it, could be whistled. The Drift from 2006 was even more dense, harrowing and difficult, as one would expect of an album containing a song inspired by the public executions of Benito Mussolini and his mistress but in the case of both albums, what excluded this listener most was the voice of Scott Walker.
A rich baritone, Walker's voice was well-suited to the Walker Brothers Wall Of Sound-inspired songs of the sixties - Love Her, Make It Easy On Yourself and The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore - but less so later in his career when it no longer fitted the music. His interpretations of Jacques Brel songs sound busy and fussy where the originals glide, the songs from the Walker Brothers reunion are so middle-of-the-road that The Corrs would announce them a bit dreary but come Tilt, the music falls into place in wonderful fashion. Unfortunately, Walker's voice no longer really fits, sounding out of place and always suggesting that the proper vocal is still to be recorded. The two songs written for Ute Lemper for her Punishing Kiss album, Scope J and Lullaby, which are, shamefully, not available on every release of the record, are quite brilliant but moreso for the music rather than Walker's voice. That might have been intentional, to add to the sense of gloom, but Walker sounded lost in his own recordings.
Now, I realise that I could be very much alone in taking this view of Walker's music but taking this feature film on its own merits, it does a very good job of understanding why Walker is so adored. Granted, Walker is rather more loved by rock critics and musicians than he is by the general public but we see him at work and hear from his fans as to why he's such an important figure. Rarely for a rock documentary, we actually get to hear much of the music, not just footage from the early days of the Walker Brothers but, courtesy of a collector, hear a recording from the late-fifties when Scott Walker was still Scott Engel. No footage remains from Walker's show for the BBC but we do get stills, performances from the Walker Brothers reunion, videos from Climate Of Hunter and playbacks of Tilt and The Drift. There's even footage of Walker conducting drums and guitars for the soundtrack of Pola X. Throughout all this, Walker is upfront about his writing and the long gaps between recordings and we hear from those who have collaborated as well as those who are simply fans.
The problem with this film is that it takes its subject and his music very seriously indeed, which is somewhat at odds with Walker himself. In his recording of The Drift, Walker is seen conducting a percussionist pummelling a side of beef, with the two of them clearly seeing the absurdity in the situation, even the humour. There's much less fun in watching rock musicians nodding along to Walker's solo records as if director Stephen Kijak had set out to document the listening habits of hippies circa 1973 and the release of Dark Side Of The Moon when bearded men in sandals would sit about nodding earnestly to The Great Gig In The Sky. The world has no need to watch Sting listen to It's Raining Today from Scott 4 while others, like Dot Allison, are clearly uncomfortable with this, smiling unhappily to camera. Brian Eno just talks over the music.
30 Century Man is much better when it plays other readings of Walker's music, such as those by Ute Lemper, or simply sets Walker's songs to short pieces of animation. It's also very good when discussing his importance, with Gavin Friday making the point that when musicians cite Jacques Brel as an influence they're actually citing Scott Walker performing the songs of Jacques Brel, and while the sheer amount of music can be appreciated, being far more than there usually is, it should go without say that you would need to be a fan of Walker's, particularly of Tilt and The Drift, to enjoy it all. Like those albums, 30 Century Man is rather too fond of the gloom in Walker's music, failing to give proper credit to the brilliance of some of his music in favour of the industrial/avant-garde leanings of Tilt. As full a picture of late-period Scott Walker as any that one could find but, for its suggestion that Walker being interesting and Walker being difficult are one and the same, still incomplete.
Visually, 30 Century Man isn't that interesting. Stephen Kijak tries his best, including animation, a dance sequence and many varied ways of interviewing his guests but when his main subject will sit only in close-up or remains in the background his face obscured behind a baseball cap, there's not much that he can do. However, when playing only the music, he does make sure that 30 Century Man looks good on DVD with enough going on in the background so as not to make it a purely audio treat. As to the actual transfer, it's fine but there is certainly a softness to the picture, something that might not have been avoidable given, I would imagine, Scott Walker demanding that Kijak have an unobtrusive crew. The natural lighting does leave much of the footage with Walker looking suitably dark but the cost is in the detail. However, the picture looks fine with special mention given to the archive footage, which has been cleaned up and often looks great. The same can be said of the DD2.0, which presents the dialogue clearly but without much fanfare. The music does sound fantastic and, for that alone, it gives the impression of being warm enough to flatter the content.
The main extra is a Commentary by director Stephen Kijak but from not really being sure what it is that he can add to the documentary, I'm left wondering if was actually in the room for the recording. Overly fond of letting his film speak for itself, Kijak lets five or six minutes go by between contributions and, even then, they're usually not much more that, "This is Dot Allison...and here's Johnny Marr!", both of which should be obvious to anyone with even a basic knowledge of music.
The bonus material continues with a set of Interviews (41m37s) of Brian Eno, Ed Bicknell, David Bowie, Jarvis Cocker and others, which offer much more of their thoughts on Scott Walker than is included in the main film, while the Deleted Scenes (17m00s) offer the rare sight (at least in this film) of Scott Walker laughing and being much more informal when caught between questions. A Music Video (6m26s) for Jesse follows while, finally, there is a Trailer (1m36s) for 30 Century Man.