January 4, 2012 by abbyo
Scott Walker is the best musician you probably haven’t heard of. That’s more or less the driving point behind the documentary “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man,” dedicated to telling the story of the reclusive, meticulous artist. After watching the film, I don’t think I could agree more. The documentary makes a solid case for Walker’s entire catalog, including some of his more disjointed, recent work, through Walker’s own recounting of his career, and interviews with producers and musicians he’s worked with, as well as countless artists he’s inspired—artists who are plenty influential in their own right. “30 Century Man” works very well as an introduction to the wide and varied world of Walker’s music, as well as enumerating the reasons as to why we should care about it.
Before watching this film, my only exposure to Scott Walker was (I assume like most people) this doc’s titular song, “30 Century Man,” through its use in the soundtrack for Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic.” I soon learned that Walker’s best-known tune was not at all representative of the man’s work. I’d try to describe Walker’s output (both solo and with the Walker Brothers), but it’s really better if you just listen to it.
It’s this kind of unique music that occupies space between Jacques Brel, Serge Gainsbourg and the films of Lindsay Anderson. It’s easier to get a hold on when you consider all the other musicians who obviously picked up a lot from this stuff. You can hear the intersections in the music of The Divine Comedy, Antony and the Johnsons, Blur, the Smiths and the Magnetic Fields. It’s the kind of music you want to put on your record player, and listen to while lying on the floor, eyes closed.
The film does a great job of showcasing Walker’s music as much as the artist himself. It helps that the filmmaker has firsthand information from the man himself. Although Walker is described as “reclusive” by everyone else in the film, and there’s plenty of evidence to support that fact (most photos have him wearing dark glasses or a ball cap), the artist goes on camera in what seems to be a very open, stress-free interview. Walker never looks uncomfortable, and seems very self-aware.
But, while all this context is nice while the audience listens to Walker’s songs, the really interesting parts are the interviews conducted with contemporary artists who site Walker as a major influence. Director Stephen Kijak talks to artists as varied as Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, the Smiths’ Johnny Marr, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn and David Bowie (who also produced). All of them turn out to be knowledgeable—and surprisingly hardcore—fans of Walker’s work, and have a lot of insight as to why they find his music so compelling, and how it’s influenced their own artistic output.
The only part of “30 Century Man” that doesn’t quite work as well as the rest is the part dedicated to Walker’s output from the 80s onward, which gets really deconstructed both musically and lyrically. By the time the documentary catches up with him in 2006, his music more resembles disturbing performance art—like the soundtrack to a Francis Bacon painting rather than the operatic mini-dramas he did earlier on. I may not like this part of the movie because I just didn’t like what I heard of Walker’s later work, but the film never really discusses what the artistic choices were that led him there, opting instead for simplistic explanations like “he started writing more of his own songs,” which dodges the question entirely. You also get the feeling that this music is where the movie’s heart truly is, which I wasn’t too big on. It makes Walker’s earlier, more palatable work seem trivial by comparison.
“Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” is a documentary clearly made by music lovers, for music lovers. It exists for the sole purpose of introducing viewers to the music of a guy who could use more recognition, and in that way, it’s very successful. It never condescends, or assumes that the viewer already knows something about Walker’s music. It merely functions as an overall introduction, and an in-depth look at an artist who’s been largely forgotten. It certainly worked for me—I plan on becoming much more familiar with Walker’s catalog in the coming weeks.