The most amazing thing about Scott Walker: 30th Century Man is, of course, that it exists. Anyone who knows anything about notoriously media-wary musician Scott Walker will be surprised to learn that he not only gave the filmmakers extensive interviews, but also allowed them to document recording sessions for his 2006 masterpiece, The Drift (4AD). As director Stephen Kijak notes in the first few minutes of the documentary, Walker has not performed in front of an audience in over 30 years and had never before allowed cameras in the studio.
Thankfully, not only did Kijak and co-producers Mia Bays and Liz Rose manage to get the film made, they did an excellent job with it. Executive-produced by none other than Walker superfan David Bowie, 30th Century Man includes interviews with some of the most talented and well-known living musicians. Besides Bowie, the filmmakers chatted with Brian Eno, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, Alison Goldfrapp, and members of Radiohead, among others.
But it’s hardly the all-star cast alone that makes this film great. Documentaries about musicians are so often weighed down by melodrama and rock-star cliché that they begin to run together. It seems like every artist out there has had a meteoric rise to fame followed shortly by a descent into drugs or alcohol and either a triumphant comeback or a tragic suicide or overdose. Call it Behind the Music syndrome, but rest assured that this documentary is not afflicted with it. Though the film does move in roughly chronological order, it is (gasp!) actually about the music.
While it does seem that Walker has had bouts with alcohol in his past, it’s barely given a mention. In fact, 30th Century Man rarely delves into the details of the artist’s personal life. The focus is instead on his evolution as a musician over four decades, from his early years with the Walker Brothers, a mid-’60s band comprised of American guys in the UK (none of whom were brothers and none of whom were really named “Walker”), through his increasingly experimental and unusual solo career. I can’t recall another music documentary that has gone to such lengths to acquaint viewers with the work of its subject. Rather than playing Walker’s music as a soundtrack to interviews and narration, Kijak often places it at center stage, accompanied by nothing more than simple visuals designed to complement the song. These moments are not always aesthetically successful — some bring to mind the too-bright, vaguely psychedelic style of early ’90s screensavers — but they do remove all other distractions and force the viewer to engage with the music. Later, we see Walker in the studio, recording the sounds of a man punching raw meat and hitting a rusty pipe with a hammer. Kijak seems to realize that it is impossible to separate discussions of Walker’s career from the songs themselves, which are so powerful and consuming that they demand this kind of attention.
Walker’s lyrics frequently appear on the screen, exposing the viewer to the introspective and increasingly abstract and unsettling content of the music. The film tracks the evolution of Walker’s writing as early love songs give way to darker material inspired by French Existentialists and Jacques Brel’s death-obsessed pop. Finally, we reach The Drift’s “Carla,” which imagines in beautifully grotesque detail the public execution of Claretta Petacci, Mussolini’s mistress.
Interviews reveal the great influence Walker has had on other artists, despite the relative obscurity in which he has languished since the early ’70s. Kijak includes quite a bit of footage of musicians reverently listening to and discussing Walker’s music. These are some of the film’s most gorgeous moments, and they yield some of its most precious insights. Johnny Marr describes how the Walker Brothers’ records were evocative of the “gothic” gloom that seemed to pervade Britain in the ’60s. Listening to the briefly reunited Walker Brothers’ 1978 album Nite Flights, Eno marvels that when he listens to current popular music, “We haven’t gotten any farther [than this album].”
While 30th Century Man largely avoids his personal life, Kijak’s interviews with Walker are the film’s greatest asset. Like many viewers familiar with Walker’s work, I came into the screening with my share of assumptions about what he might be like. I expected him to be cryptic and stand-offish, or angry and brooding. As it turned out, he was sincere, forthcoming and deeply self-critical, but without a trace of anger. He comes off as a perfectionist and a profoundly pensive person, and that shapes our understanding of his music. Walker reveals that he doesn’t much care for quite a bit of his past work. He talks about how he never listens to his albums more than once, because each is a document of the moment when he made it, and when he’s finished recording, he’s also done with that period of his life. “There’s always urgency [to produce new material]… but you can’t push it because it doesn’t work. And it’s slow,” says Walker regarding how long (over 10 years, in the case of his last two releases) it takes him to produce albums.
“Ultimately, your work is your world,” Walker says toward the end of the documentary. 30th Century Man succeeds, then, because it inhabits the world of its subject — that is, the realm in which music reigns supreme, and personal details are beside the point. The film is a thoughtful, well-constructed introduction and tribute to an artist who is only beginning to be appreciated as the visionary innovator that he has been for decades. 30th Century Man goes beyond that, though, by illuminating the process of making art and illustrating what it means to let your work become your world.