“…we came in?”
In the past year I’ve written blogs covering primarily films, sometimes books and television, and on one occasion each, theatre and comics. Pretty much the only thing I haven’t covered is music. But this got me thinking: what qualifies as “Music For Nerds?” How about one album that has as much a cult following as any comic book I know?
Like most people, I discovered Pink Floyd in high school, due primarily to the reputation DARK SIDE OF THE MOON (1973) had in connection with watching THE WIZARD OF OZ on mute. I bought the CD and tried out the experiment, and like most people, found it to be just a hyped up hoax (the one and only sync I found notable was the alarm-clocks in the song “Time” going off right when Miss Gulch first appears on her bicycle, but aside from that, it was just forgettable coincidences that you’d normally expect from any experiment like that). Regardless, I got to discover DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, which is a phenomenal album. The only real concept album I had known before were The Beatles‘s output: SGT. PEPPER, THE WHITE ALBUM, and ABBEY ROAD, which, despite some unifying themes and narratives in the songs, still were each, at heart, a straightforward collection of songs. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON doesn’t feel like a collection of songs but of emotions and concepts conveyed through layered aural storytelling, featuring long stretches without vocals. Everyone loves this album, even non-Pink Floyd fans.
Later I discovered THE WALL (1979) but didn’t think about it too much. It seemed to me to be the same thing, but longer, and telling a story that wasn’t all that compelling. In college, where the cliche is that every kid is always listening to either Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, the familiar songs of THE WALL just blended in the background.
Only in the last few months have I found myself frequently listening to THE WALL. And I mean really listening to THE WALL. As in, I can’t just listen to one song. When I start listening to “In the Flesh?” I will always listen all the way to “Outside the Wall” as if it were a Wagnerian opera. This is Roger Waters‘s magnum opus. The songs, lyrics, and mix of the album is so layered. I’m not saying it’s the greatest musical album of all time, as obviously that’s subjective, but I do feel that, from a technical and structural standpoint, it represents the absolute artistic peak of the medium. If SGT. PEPPER popularized the idea of the concept album, THE WALL is its perfection.
But why is this album, telling the story of an alienated and anti-social rockstar named Pink, so popular? Its tone is bitter and depressed, it deals with themes of loneliness, cruelty, and dysfunction, and its downbeat storyline is just unpleasant. By all logic, this shouldn’t appeal to a mainstream audience. And yet it does. In thinking this over, I came to realize I had stumbled on one of the key differences between the medium of music and the medium of film (or arguably all forms of literal storytelling in general): music does not rely on imagery or literal ideas: the appeal of music is in its rhythm and beat, and the composition of THE WALL is so rich that it conveys its power on listeners through abstract moods and lyrics. Many creative people tend to be like Pink, quiet and emotional (“the bleeding hearts and artistes”) and have struggled with depression and loneliness due to building our own walls. In that sense, THE WALL is like a musical version of CATCHER IN THE RYE.
Now normally when a song has as complex and layered of a sound-mix as the songs on THE WALL have, it becomes difficult or even impossible to perform live. “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” is often cited as an example of a song that can never be adequately performed at a live concert because the album-version of the song that we all know and love is so layered that it can only be created in a studio. Yet the concert experience of THE WALL has thrived, becoming an immersive experience full of stage theatrics, most notably building a wall on stage and projected imagery. It has been performed many times, one of the most famous being a version staged in Berlin in 1990, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. This all-star performance features Cyndi Lauper, Sinead O’Connor, Joni Mitchell, Bryan Adams, and even Albert Finney and Tim Curry acting out “The Trial.” If you’ve seen the video clips of this concert, you know it was fucking awesome!
In 1982, THE WALL was adapted into a film, directed by Sir Alan Parker and featuring animation by Gerald Scarfe and…well…the result is polarizing. To this day, I don’t think audiences have fully decided how they feel about this film. There’ve been many stories of production disputes, and Parker and Waters not getting along only to both end up disappointed with the end result. David Gilmour famously said he considered it the weakest telling of THE WALL’s story, as opposed to the album and concert versions, which I agree with. Yet audiences have warmed up to it over time, Roger Ebert added it to his list of Great Movies in 2010, and Parker has gone from calling it the most miserable professional experience of his career to a film he’s proud of.
My thoughts? The film has many striking images, but I don’t know if it works as a coherent whole. Getting back to what I said earlier, maybe the story of THE WALL shouldn’t really be filmed. Parker and Waters were surprised to discover how depressing the film turned out to be, which shows the difference between music and visual imagery. I don’t know if I like seeing Pink represented as a literal character and seeing his depression and alienation played out visually; it works better on an abstract/metaphorical level. During “Another Brick In the Wall,” we see the school children walking on an assembly line and falling into a meat grinder; we see the teacher behaving like a dictator; it’s all obvious and “on the nose” as opposed to the way the album conveyed these story elements with merely soundbytes. Furthermore, compare this to the concert experience of THE WALL where, you’ll notice, everyone is having a blast and the audience is cheering and singing along with Waters through all the various theatrics! No one ever leaves a Pink Floyd show depressed.
But now I’m going to say something that shocks people: I don’t think the animated segments work in the film! I know, everyone will disagree with me. “Are there any haters of the animation here tonight? Get ’em up against the wall!” Even people that don’t like the film usually praise the animation as one of its highlights. But hear me out: the animated segments are beautiful, haunting, and very visually creative. They’re great…as stand-alone music videos…or as something projected at the concert experience of THE WALL. But when placed within the context of the film, they don’t really work and they ruin the pacing. The focus of the film is on Pink portrayed as a literal character, played by Bob Geldof. When the animation comes in, we are being told elements of Pink’s story with him offscreen, and the result is the film Telling rather than Showing. The biggest flaw of the film comes when we see “The Trial.” This is the climax of Pink’s story and yet he is offscreen!!! The end of his story is played out with animated characters, before the movie cuts back to an abstract final scene and then goes to the credits. It doesn’t feel like Geldof’s character receives any closure whatsoever. In the end, the film should have been either entirely animated or entirely live action. Jumping between the two, while an interesting idea in theory, plays strangely and really just wasn’t needed.
In short, most people who like the movie were already fans of the album. Those who come into the film cold usually have no idea what’s going on, nor can they appreciate the songs themselves as they are not being performed at their best. One review summed it up well: “The movie is less about character development than it is about throwing symbols at you: walls, hammers, mommy issues, and vaginas.”
But, hey, my opinion clearly isn’t the only one; a lot of people LOVE this movie. Click here to see one of the most in-depth analyses I’ve ever seen for both the film and the album.
Parker is a director I’ve always respected. Several of his films have been musicals, yet not in the traditional sense: BUGSY MALONE (1976), FAME (1980), and what I consider his magnum opus: EVITA (1996). Yet audiences have always had a tough time connecting with film versions of sung-through musicals. My upcoming blog on LES MISERABLES (2012) will discuss that issue considerably. But I feel that had Parker had more creative freedom, he might have been able to make something that was more of a stand-alone film and less of an ode to Pink Floyd.
But it all started with an incredible album. Beethoven had his Fifty Symphony, Tolstoy had WAR AND PEACE, Tolkein had LORD OF THE RINGS, and Roger Waters has THE WALL. It is a towering achievement that has stood the test of time and continues to be a best-seller. If you haven’t listened to it in a while, give it another go. Then wait a while and listen to it again. And soon, even if you have a favorite song on it, you’ll find it impossible to not always listen to the whole album all the way through each subsequent time you take the journey.
“Isn’t this where…”