Monday, April 6, 2009

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

Scott Walker is probably not a name you'll recognize, especially if you're under 40, but you almost certainly know his voice. He sang the lead vocal on the Walker Brothers' 1966 hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore"--a song I can never hear now without thinking of the sappy but irresistible scene in Truly, Madly, Deeply.

I have to admit that I had no idea Scott Walker was still making music until I saw Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. (Yes, it's "30," not "30th"--the odd phrase comes from the title of one of Walker's songs.) As it turns out, he's gone from singing MOR pop to creating remarkable experimental recordings. He still uses the song as a form, but he's taken it to some unfamiliar sonic and poetic territory. You can listen to some samples from his 2006 record "The Drift" here.

The film consists mostly of interviews with Walker and other musicians, and it focuses almost exclusively on Walker's evolution as an artist. There's precious little about his personal life, and the music business is only discussed in terms of its impact on his creative output. By all rights, SW30CM should be a very dull movie for anyone who isn't a passionate Scott Walker fan, but the film's modesty actually serves to heighten the drama of Walker's artistic struggle. The fimmakers' aim is to give us a glimpse of an intensely private process--Walker's journey inside himself to find a unique musical truth. A bells-and-whistles production that called attention to itself would only distract us from that story.

That said, the film doesn't take itself entirely seriously. It shows a wry attitude toward the pop culture of the 60s and 70s, and makes gentle fun of some of Walker's weirder musical techniques--e.g., recording the sound of a guy punching a side of meat. The cast of interviewees is impressively diverse, ranging from the instantly recognizable (Bowie, Brian Eno) to the less recognizable but pleasingly hip (Evan Parker, Jarvis Cocker.)

If you really have no patience at all for experimental music, then SW30CM might not be worth your time; but even though I wouldn't want to listen to Walker's songs every day of my life, I found the film's portrait of the artist fascinating. I came away thinking about all those Big Questions: Is it possible to have success in the world and still live an authentic life? Is every artist ultimately a blinkered, hobbled being? Where does vision end and ego begin?

The film was actually made in 2006, in conjunction with the release of "The Drift," but it's enjoyed haphazard distribution, especially in the U.S. It's had very short runs at indie theaters around the country. The only upcoming screening listed at the film's website is in San Francisco in May. It's currently out on DVD in Britain and will be coming out here in June. Netflixers should keep an eye out for it.

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