Space-Age Love Songs—Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

Imperative to catch on the big screen, Stephen Kijak’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man opens today for one week only at the IFC Center in New York. There are other fleeting, theatrical engagements in the offing for early ’09 before this documentary, long denied to American audiences though it did smashingly well in the UK, settles onto DVD. But having first seen it 18 months ago in a real movie theater and then again last week on my laptop, I can state with certainty that Kijak’s collage-like approach to recreating 1960s pop music history, and tracing its influence through the subsequent decades, loses something in immediacy and intimacy on the small box. And the abstract visualizations that Kijak devises—soft-focused, delicately hallucinatory mosaics in orange and gold that feel all of a piece with Walker’s era and sensibility—cry out for the widest panorama.

Prior to this film (which I almost skipped, because the title seemed to promise a science-fiction extravaganza), I had neither heard of Scott Walker nor had the slightest familiarity with The Walker Brothers, the British band that made the Ohio-born émigré an icon of mod London. Yet it doesn’t take much more than a snippet of his 1967 song “Orpheus,” played in the movie’s first scene, to fall under the singer-songwriter’s incandescent spell. Even before you hear the stunning baritone voice, those orchestrated strings swirling across the breeze of sound give one the sensation of skiing. And then Walker sings. He sings with clarity, with the unapologetic splendor of dulcet pipes. “Beauty,” in this instance, seems too reticent a term. Beyond this, the contrast between the fine grain of his voice and “imagery so strong and graphic” (in Angela Morley’s words) creates another layer of tension within the bristling intensity of Delius and Sibelius-inspired arrangements. Through a crescendo of horns and massed strings intrudes the lyric, “His bloated, belching figure stomps/He may crash through the ceiling soon,” in “Montague Terrace (in Blue),” an elegant, even buoyant saga of a shabby apartment building and its grubby tenants.

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