When it comes to century men, Judge Ben Saylor believes anything after 24 is gravy.
"I've had very bad dreams all my life."-Scott Walker
After learning that I would be reviewing the DVD of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, I quickly realized that the only Walker song I was familiar with was "30 Century Man," which appears on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson's 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. This prompted a frenzied search for other Walker recordings to give myself some context before I watched the film. Five stores later, I was still without any Walker music. Ultimately, I was saved by the serendipitous discovery of an unused iTunes gift card, which I used to download a compilation of Walker's songs.
I include this information as evidence of how relatively obscure Scott Walker remains, decades after he began recording music. Born in Hamilton, OH, as Noel Scott Engel, Walker made a name for himself as part of the Walker Brothers (none of whom were actually named Walker, nor were any of them actually related), a pop trio that found success with songs such as "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore" and "Make It Easy on Yourself." Walker distinguished himself with his potent baritone voice, and also began to write songs for the group. When the Walker Brothers disbanded, Walker went solo, releasing a series of successful albums characterized by Walker's distinct vibrato married to lush arrangements and strange lyrics. But when Walker's 1969 release Scott 4 flopped, the singer began to struggle creatively, and after a string of poorly received 70s records, his output dwindled to the point that after his 1984 album Climate of Hunter, there would be an 11 year wait until the release of his next album, Tilt. This in turn was followed by another 11 year hiatus, which ended with the release of 2006's The Drift.
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man traces Walker's career from his days as an LA bass player to his pop idol period all the way to the recording sessions for The Drift. Director Stephen Kijak relies on a lot of talking heads interviews, with contributions from many well-known musicians who admire Walker such as Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley of Pulp, Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, Brian Eno, Radiohead, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, Sting and David Bowie (who also executive produced the film). Archival footage of live performances by the Walker Brothers is also included, as well as new interviews with Walker himself. I would have liked to seen more of the latter in the film, as Walker proves to be a fascinating but somewhat elusive interview subject, and I wanted to hear more from him.
If Scott Walker: 30 Century Man is an unexciting documentary stylistically, there's no denying that it's interesting to see these musicians talk about Walker and his influence. The best part of these interviews is when Walker's songs are played for the interviewees and we get to see their reactions, which range from astonishment at Walker's lyrics (from Dot Allison, for example) to amusement at Walker's sometimes-silly turns of phrase (as when Bowie chuckles while listening to "The Old Man's Back Again").
The film began to lose me, however, once it moved into Walker's wilderness years when his output became so sporadic. Unfortunately, rather than trying to figure out what was going on with Walker during these long fallow periods, Kijak seems content to let the mystery be, which may be fine for those who like the aura of mystique about Walker, but it feels odd in this film, as everything until this point is fairly informative. And while the interviews with Walker certainly help shed light on the man, I came away from the film with the sense that the filmmakers could have dug deeper.
Unfortunately, rather than getting his subject to open up more, Kijak slows things down considerably by focusing on the recording of The Drift toward the end of the film. Since only Walker aficionados are likely to be familiar with this album going into the movie, it seems curious that a film that has been fairly accessible until this point would go into something that requires so much additional context. While the bits of studio footage are not without interest (especially when Walker is directing someone how to punch a slab of meat for a song), a separate film covering the making of The Drift might have worked better.
The DVD of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man has varying image quality depending on the footage; the studio clips of Walker working on The Drift look like they were filmed on a camcorder, whereas the talking heads segments come through fine. Sound is better overall, especially when it comes to the music of the film; the disc's Dolby 5.1 track is more than up to the task at hand. For extras, there is a collection of 12 extended interviews with people such as Bowie, Cocker, Hawley and Eno. There is also nearly 17 minutes of extra interview footage with Walker included, most of which I would have put in the film. Moving on, there are two additional clips of Walker in the studio; one entails the recording of the Drift track "Buzzers," the other involves Walker working with guitarist Hugh Burns. The "Buzzers" clip is worth checking out because you get to hear the song during the latter half of the featurette. Finally, there is a short segment called "Walkermania," which features a detailed look at Walker (and Walker Brothers) memorabilia hosted by collector Arnie Potts.
Recommending a film like Scott Walker: 30 Century Man is a tricky proposition. On the one hand, if you don't know anything (or very little) about Scott Walker and his music, this film is certainly a solid primer. Die-hard Walker fans will also likely enjoy the film. If you don't like Walker's music, the film (or at least parts of it) may still be worth watching. Ultimately, however, the successes of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man are at least partially compromised by the film's uneven approach to its subject matter and his music.
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