Roger Waters: The Wall: More Bricks, by West Anthony
Roger Waters: The Wall recently played nationwide as part of the Fathom Events series. Our own West Anthony was there to see it. For future screening information, click here.
There is a moment in Martin Scorsese’s 2008 Rolling Stones concert film Shine A Light in which a moving Keith Richards performance is suddenly interrupted by interview footage. It was jarring and unnecessary, and ruined a perfectly good tune, and I couldn’t understand why this interview hadn’t had the good sense to wait until the song had finished before butting in. “They’d better include an uninterrupted performance in the DVD extras,” I grumbled (they didn’t). I found myself thinking of that moment far more than I ever wanted to whilst watching Roger Waters: The Wall, a film that mostly presents Waters’ somewhat recontextualized live concert performance of the classic 1979 Pink Floyd album; interspersed between some songs, however, is a kind of subplot which follows him on a road trip to visit the graves of his father and grandfather in Europe, which sort of makes the film feel a little like taking The Wall and Floyd’s follow-up album, 1983’s antiwar opus The Final Cut, and setting your iPod on shuffle. The tenuous connection between this journey and the concert is more or less everything that’s wrong with an otherwise grand picture.
The Wall began life as a double album about “Pink”, a stand-in for Waters who wallows in rock-star excess and self-pity, cutting himself off from humanity in a trashed hotel room as he reminisces about his crummy childhood and his failed marriage until he’s drugged up and made to take the stage once more; there, he imagines the show as a fascist rally – sadly not as difficult as it should be – until a mental break sends him into a climactic fantasy sequence that forces him to demolish his metaphorical barrier for good and all. Waters conceived the album as merely a part of the kind of concert experience that would make the word “extravaganza” cower in terror. Pink Floyd had long been a band renowned for giving value for money in a live setting, with dizzying lighting, films, and even a giant flying pig – no, really; all of this and more was included in a fantastically complex live production in which audiences were also treated to the audacious sight of a giant wall being built, brick by brick, between them and the band, until the Floyd was completely hidden behind it for the second half of the show, before the wall is literally knocked down in the finale. The live Wall experience was, in fact, so complicated and expensive that it was initially performed in only four cities. The show was filmed but the results were deemed all but unusable, so Waters’ dream of a concert film for all those who couldn’t get to the four cities was replaced a couple of years later by Alan Parker’s phantasmagorical 1982 cinematic interpretation, featuring Boomtown Rats lead singer Bob Geldof as Pink (although it’s a well-regarded cult classic, almost no one associated with the film today seems to have a kind word for it). In 1990, Waters – now on his own after his acrimonious split with Pink Floyd in the 80’s – staged The Wall once more, this time on the former site of the Berlin Wall, with an all-star cast that included Marianne Faithfull, Tim Curry and Albert Finney.
Two decades later, Roger Waters decided the time was right to revive The Wall, and spent three years crossing the globe with an even more preposterously elaborate production which was greeted with widespread acclaim and dumptrucks full of loot. This new and improved Wall was also more explicitly political, decrying war and capitalist greed; fans were encouraged to send pictures via Facebook of loved ones who were lost in various global conflicts, which were projected on the wall during the shows. This more direct antiwar sentiment, only hinted at in the original concept (Pink’s father, like Roger’s, was killed in World War II, but this is only one among numerous “bricks”), mixes uneasily with all the bombastic and frankly egomaniacal rock ‘n’ roll elements of the story, and leads to some lopsided transitions here and there – “Another Brick In The Wall Part II”, Pink Floyd’s immortal ode to juvenile rebellion and ironic subliteracy, shifts awkwardly to a tribute to Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian man wrongly killed by London police in 2005. Is Waters implying that the lack of quality education led to those police officers killing an innocent man? And if so, is that entirely appropriate in the context of a big fat rock show? The humanitarian message is further clouded when, despite all the proselytizing elsewhere about treating your fellow humans with dignity and respect, the wanton groupie gratification ditty “Young Lust” is accompanied by video footage of comely women in varying degrees of nudity that would not be out of place in a Cinemax movie. Mixed messages, to be sure.
On the other hand, there are many other moments that work well, often spectacularly so. Just watching the physical act of the wall being built in front of the performers is thrilling by virtue of its pure theatricality. The high-definition video footage projected onto the wall (and the round screen above) provides more visual spectacle; some of Gerald Scarfe’s animation, created for the original live show and subsequently used in Alan Parker’s film, is included. “Vera”, a wistfully nostalgic song that harkens back to the loss of Waters’ father, is here accompanied by home video of a young girl surprised by her father’s return from combat overseas that adds an unexpectedly tearful moment. Of course, the emotional highlight of the show (and album) remains “Comfortably Numb”, co-written by Waters and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, whose monumental climactic solo is faithfully replicated by Dave Kilminster standing precariously atop the wall; intercut with this performance is footage of audience members’ ecstatic and passionate reactions that suggest the song has lost none of its resonance across multiple generations. And finally, the breathtaking sight of a ginormous 35-foot-high wall going kablooey and tumbling down without actually killing anybody (that we know of) is some kind of insane, cathartic miracle of stagecraft. All this and two LPs worth of memorable songs (“In The Flesh”, “Mother”, “Hey You”, “Nobody Home”, “Run Like Hell”, not to mention the near-parody orchestral rock-opera finale “The Trial”) performed by a cracking band, expertly led by a guy who technically qualifies for Social Security were he an American citizen, putting hordes of younger musicians to shame. There’s even a sly in-joke at the end for obsessive Floyd nerds who know every groove of the album backward and forward (guilty as charged). With its beautiful photography and immersive sound design, the concert experience of The Wall is as triumphantly reproduced for the cinema screen as fans of the work could have ever hoped.
If, on the other hand, fans also hoped for an uninterrupted viewing of said experience, they’re shit out of luck. The show is repeatedly stopped for Waters’ road trip through France and Italy to visit the graves of his ancestors, both killed in action during the World Wars. Along the way, he reads a letter sent to his mum by his father’s commanding officer, explains the Battle Of The Bulge to an uncomprehending French bartender, and talks with a couple of old friends. If any of this felt even for a moment like spontaneous action captured by a documentary film crew, perhaps the intrusion of this material could be forgiven, but ALL of it is so transparently staged, with multiple camera setups, the result is that every scene feels phony and contrived to elicit an emotional response from the audience. It is as though Waters felt that he wasn’t hammering (no pun intended) his antiwar message enough in the live show – and BELIEVE ME, he is – and thus was compelled to shovel some more down our throats. This unfortunately creates an imbalance in the film: there may have been just enough preaching in the live show to get by without overwhelming the more baldly rock ‘n’ roll fist-pumping good times, but the fake travelogue tips the scales into mawkish manipulation and undermines the truly awesome spectacle of one of the grandest – if not the grandest – live rock show ever produced. One could hope for a complete uninterrupted presentation of The Wall as some kind of DVD extra; barring that, it would not be out of the question to imagine some enterprising fan creating his or her own edit at home. Otherwise, this is the film we have. Being co-director alongside Sean Evans, it was unlikely that anyone was going to talk Roger Waters out of inserting his pilgrimage into an otherwise splendid theatrical experience; die-hard Floydians may be able to let it slide and just marvel at the good bits, but the rest of you might find your patience sorely tested.