Film Review: Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

One of the best music documentaries ever made, <i>Scott Walker: 30 Century Man</i> will have you yearning to learn more and fully immerse yourself in its subject.

Brian Eno pretty much says it all when he observes, listening to a Scott Walker record, “It’s humiliating to hear this… We haven’t got any further than this. [Today, with] all these bands that sound like Roxy Music and Talking Heads…it’s a disgrace, really.”

In its deeply absorbing and smashingly successful attempt to both present and explain this seminal and brilliant, if marginalized, pioneering music industry genius, Stephen Kijak’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man emerges as one of the best music documentaries ever made. Produced by David Bowie, it offers a pungent and savvy insider’s look at the artist, and Bowie himself is ruefully amusing, recalling his jealousy of Walker’s sound when introduced to his records by a mutual girlfriend and, later, chuckling over some quirky Walker phrasing in a song he hears being played. Indeed, the parallels between Walker’s earlier, hauntingly resonant, melodramatic vocals and poetic lyrics, and those of Bowie and others who followed Walker, is inescapable.

Various interviewees—Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Thom Yorke, Marc Almond, Alison Goldfrapp, Lulu, Ute Lemper (who fascinatingly collaborated with him)—are likewise shown listening to Walker’s records (not CDs), and their comments and reminiscences provide authentic, thrilling insight into the work of the artist, born in 1943 in Ohio, who formed the group The Walker Brothers (who weren’t really brothers) that, for a brief ’60s period, won acclaim as “the American Beatles.” Their hit “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” although far more accessible than Walker’s later writings, set the gloomy, Goth template for all the more blisteringly innovative, solo work to follow.

An erudite songwriter with fabulously catholic aesthetic taste, Walker found success in an England he discovered to be just like the movies he’d loved with stars like Margaret Rutherford and Terry-Thomas. Footage from these films, including Bryan Forbes’ wonderfully poignant The L-Shaped Room, is skillfully interwoven as Walker’s mournful, aching music is heard, along with the observation that his music aurally expressed the “kitchen-sink” ethos of the era.

An enigma who dropped out of music for years, and self-confessed alcoholic, Walker is, today, even more enigmatic, but Kijak‘s camera pins down his baseball-capped elusiveness, capturing him as he talks about his life and prepares for a recording session. As resolutely innovative as ever, he is shown getting music effects through the punching of slabs of meat and other singular modes of percussion.

Nearly every interviewee attests to both Walker’s brilliance—as a great poet alone, if nothing else—and the shame of his not being more renowned and celebrated today. As for the man himself, although this undoubtedly must rankle, he remains concerned with making music in the most uncompromising way. To have his great vitality and eccentricity—once he records a song, he never listens to it again—preserved for us on film is a true privilege. The uninitiated may well want to rush from the theatre and immediately immerse oneself in his world.