Judge Victor Valdivia is an electronic music pioneer. He was the first to play "Chopsticks" in MIDI.
"Younger people don't realize what an anomaly he was in the Seventies. He was an alien."—Brian Eno biographer David Sheppard
Brian Eno first emerged as the synthesizer player for legendary British glam rockers Roxy Music, but he initially didn't seem to be the band's most significant member. Singer Bryan Ferry wrote all the songs, guitarist Phil Manzanera was the band's most skilled instrumentalist, and sax player Andy Mackay put on the band's most extravagant stage performance, leaving Eno, with his wild outfits and strange machines, as the band's most underappreciated member. After Eno appeared on Roxy's first two albums, Roxy Music (1972) and For Your Pleasure (1973), he left the band, tired of ego clashes with Ferry and convinced he had a vision of music that Roxy Music couldn't fulfill. At the time, few expected much from Eno, given that he had seemingly little to do with Roxy's creative output and proudly professed in interviews that he was a "non-musician."
Eno then proceeded to embark on one of the most audacious and influential solo careers in music history. The string of albums he recorded and released between 1973 and 1977 remain amongst the most groundbreaking of the era. Here Come the Warm Jets (1973), Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), Another Green World, and Discreet Music (both 1975) and Before and After Science (1977) all laid the groundwork for the punk movement of the Seventies and the electronic movement of the Eighties. Even more remarkably, their influence would be felt well into the Nineties, when a string of electronic artists would use the techniques Eno pioneered on Another Green World and Discreet Music in creating a whole new style of music: ambient. Add to that his work as a producer during this time for such artists as David Bowie (on his seminal albums Low and "Heroes"), Talking Heads, Devo, Ultravox, and the German electronic band Cluster, not to mention his collaborations with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp as well as his former Roxy bandmate Phil Manzanera on art-rock supergroup the 801, and you have a body of work that's staggering in its diversity, boldness, and consequence.
This is indeed a significant story, and Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell to Earth is right to want to tell it. However, the documentary is felled by a fatal flaw: Eno himself doesn't appear in it. There's some archival footage of Eno onstage with Roxy Music (Eno only performed as a solo artist a handful of times early in his solo career and gave up live performance completely by the end of the Seventies) as well as Eno in the studio working. There are also some archival interview snippets with Eno, all of which combined add up to about five minutes. There are also some interviews with some of Eno's musical collaborators (though none of Roxy Music's members) such as Cluster guitarist Hans-Joachim Rodelius and studio guitarist Lloyd Watson. The bulk of the documentary, however, is taken up with interviews with music critics (such as heinously overrated windbag Robert Christgau) and Eno biographers who attempt to theorize about the albums and Eno's reasons for doing them. Their conjectures aren't necessarily off-base, but without any actual input from Eno himself, they become more and more speculative and less and less fascinating. This is typical of unauthorized music DVDs, but what makes this so egregious is that this documentary clocks in at a staggering 2 ½ hours. Yes, Eno's work during this time is important enough to warrant such detailed analysis, but at such an extended length, the endless speculation becomes unbearable. For much of Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell to Earth, critics and writers drone and on about what Eno might have been thinking during this time, which is even more tedious than it sounds. The DVD's producers should have shown better judgment in realizing that without Eno's input, there's simply no reason for this documentary to have lasted more than an hour or, at most, 90 minutes.
It's not that Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn't have its heart in the right place. The producers spent the effort and money to license several crucial songs from this period, from Eno and Roxy to other artists, including David Bowie, Cluster, and Robert Fripp. These are immensely helpful in illustrating the points made by the interviewees about how important this music is. There's also a section detailing Eno's influences, such as avant-garde composers John Cage and Lamont Young, which also has some value. The interviews with Eno's musical collaborators, such as Rodelius, Watson, and guitarist Chris Spedding, who played on Eno's albums, are the best, containing some important stories and insights. Nonetheless, these sections are too few and far between to justify sitting through the whole DVD. The documentary filmmakers would have been wise to simply focus on these segments and pare out the remaining filler. Hearing Robert Christgau babble on and on about how much Another Green World means to him, for instance, isn't interesting and doesn't help anyone understand just what makes Eno's music so important.
Technically, the DVD is OK but hardly revelatory. The full-screen transfer and stereo sound mix are both decent, although the archival footage does show its age a couple of times. The biggest disappointment is the lack of extras. Apart from text bios of all the interviewees, the only extra is "Lloyd Watson on the 801" (3:57), an extended interview and montage in which Watson discusses how the 801, the supergroup formed by Eno and Manzanera, came together. It's actually worth seeing and just highlights what poor choices the DVD's producers made in assembling the documentary.
It's these poor choices that make Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell to Earth such a disappointment. Brian Eno's work remains worthy of a comprehensive full-length analysis, but, sorry to say, this DVD isn't it. It's too long, speculative, and poorly assembled to please even the most ardent Eno fans and will bore and confuse everyone else. You'd be better served by spending your money on Another Green World and Here Come the Warm Jets and forming your own conclusions instead.
Guilty of not knowing when to stop.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: MVD Visual
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