It’s difficult to think of another artist whose work has taken the same trajectory as that of the enigmatic Scott Walker (né Engel), from teen pop idol to avant-garde composer, from low to high art, from the universal appeal of the pop song to the altogether more uncompromising abstractions of industrial noise. Imagine if you will if Justin Timberlake were to grow tired of this pop lark, announce himself as a fan of one of the numerous wild and wonderful directors featured elsewhere on this site, and disappear from public life in order to dedicate himself to furthering Steve Reich’s work on phasing. It’s an astonishing transformation (Walker’s, not Timberlake’s – that hasn’t really happened, you can wake up now) when you consider that the Walker Brothers were little more than a boy band whose members wielded minimal artistic influence, albeit an extremely polished one thanks to Scott’s delicious baritone and access to the best songs by the best writers of the day.
Stephen Kijak’s documentary 30 Century Man tells the story of that transformation – the long and, at times, tortuous journey of artistic discovery that took Walker from accidental honey-voiced frontman to critically-acclaimed composer. It’s a story that’s difficult to fuck up, and despite a lack of period footage and any kind of flair in the storytelling, it sticks to its task and makes for compelling viewing. It’s helped enormously by the inclusion of an extremely rare interview with the man himself who comes across as likeable, articulate, intensely thoughtful and engaging. Back in the sixties Walker’s disguise of choice was a pair of shades, seemingly less of an affectation than that of most pop stars if the stories of his legendary shyness are to be believed (it’s alleged that Walker once crashed a car to avoid playing a show, though if you will wear shades in mid-winter these things are going to happen), but these days he hides beneath the brim of a baseball cap. Jarvis Cocker notes early on in the film that when Walker produced Pulp’s We Love Life album, the brim of the cap rose steadily as Walker became more comfortable with the situation. Here we get full, unfettered access to Walker sans hat, and a corresponding openness. Our unrestricted view shows Walker to be a remarkably well-preserved 63-year-old, his skin flushed with health, so much so that long-time Scott fan and the film’s executive producer David Bowie, the original ageless pop star, Sir Cliff notwithstanding, looks positively craggy by comparison.
Perhaps in a bid to compensate for the lack of archive material the movie is weighed down by a preponderance of talking heads and while Cocker is a veritable goldmine to documentary filmmakers everywhere, always ready with an interesting anecdote or angle, many of the other contributors fall into the categories of fandom or, worse, self-absorption. Sting pops up to describe Walker as ‘existential’, Damon Albarn is so damn smart as to be unintelligible, while Radiohead talk more about their own records than those of Scott’s. All in all, it’s a bit of a hotchpotch as we move from the early years of Walker Brothers mania and through Scott’s solo records and his discovery of Jacques Brel, Walker’s artistic influence increasing at every step as his commercial standing falls further and further, his TV show cancelled, his star on the wane, to arrive at the artistic highpoint of Scott 4, his undisputed masterpiece, the point of equilibrium where Scott’s intellect and pop nous exist in perfect balance… and the point where the money ran out, his sixties fanbase deserted him, and the record company’s indulgence stopped short. We pick through the detritus… fulfilling the contractually obligation: the albums of movie themes, the Walker Brothers reformation, the forays into country and the drift towards MOR… all the way to the final Walker Brothers album Nite Flights in 1977 with its four extraordinary Scott Walker compositions, where Scott throws caution to the wind in the knowledge that the band are certain to be dropped. They are. And then the film begins.
After a brief examination of 1984’s Climate Of Hunter, and of Julian Cope’s role in Scott’s rehabilitation as the compiler of the excellent Fire Escape In The Sky album, the final third of the film is given over to the making of Tilt (1995) and Walker’s latest, The Drift, released last year. Whereas the preceding part of the film has the feel of a hastily assembled TV documentary, this insight into Walker’s creative mindset is genuinely rewarding and far more involved, and if you’re left with the feeling that the price of Walker’s co-operation was this focus on his latest work, you also feel grateful that it should be so. Tilt and The Drift are innovative works of disturbing intensity that reflect our own nightmarish reality, as Walker experiments around the edges of discord, throwing his disquieting, almost abstract words into the brew. The talking heads are momentarily thrown, unsure of the correct response, victims of a practical joke. In the movie’s best moment we’re treated to the sight of Scott in the studio instructing his percussionist on the best way to punch a slab of meat for a song about the hanging corpses of Mussolini and his mistress. For a moment we’re into Spinal Tap territory, and then we hear the finished version of the song. It works.
There’s little left of Scott Walker, sixties heart-throb and greatest voice of his generation. Even the once great baritone is somewhat diminished. Walker’s infrequent forays into the world of popular entertainment, the appearances on The Tube and, latterly, on Later (let’s see you play some boogie-woogie piano to that Jools!) seem more and more incongruous. Scott Walker died sometime in 1977 and Scott Engels was reborn… by rights he should have reverted to his own name then, so little do Tilt and The Drift have in common with the sixties pop masterpieces of the band from where he took his name. Scott Walker, avant-garde composer, is finally where he always wanted to be, in complete control of his artistic destiny. It may have taken him a lifetime to get there, but there he is, occasionally dragged back into view by Sixties Scott. This film shows us a little of how he got there, and a little more of where he is now. If the Bergman-loving Scott Engels himself had been behind the lens, what a movie it could have been.