Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: The Continuing Adventures of Scott Walker

By Justin DeFreitas
Wednesday January 21, 2009 - 07:00:00 PM

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man begins by building up the myth of Scott Walker, the narrator informing us of the elusiveness of the man, including the years of silence in which the singer rarely allowed himself to be photographed, at least not without customary sunglasses and visor pulled low. But if the opening of Stephen Kijak’s film seems a bit portentous, perhaps we can afford to be forgiving, as the music he documents has that same blend of grandiosity, mystery and sweeping melodrama.  

But once he is on screen, humble, shy and thoughtful at the age of 60, the myths not only disappear but seem downright silly. In his appearance and his politeness and his reticence, the still boyish-looking Walker bears resem-blance to Beck, an artist 30 years his junior whose elegiac, string-laden 2002 album Sea Change evoked the same gloomily atmospheric grandiosity that Walker pioneered.  

The film, opening Friday, Jan 23, at Shattuck Cinemas, provides an efficient if quick overview of Walker’s career: Noel Scott Engel, born in 1944, was just another pompadoured teenager in the age of rock and roll before joining a group called the Walker Brothers, a successful trio of heartthrobs that contained no brothers and no Walkers. Scott was not the band's lead singer at first, only taking the microphone for moody ballads to which his fluid baritone was better suited. But he soon become the band's frontman as their singles climbed the charts, their popularity in England putting them on a par with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Just a couple of years later, the band dissolved and Walker went solo with a string of Top Ten albums—Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3—that featured a mix of covers and original material.  

Scott 4 was his best yet, an album of all original material in which Walker fully met his potential, incorporating classical music, European literary influences, and a richer, more personal sense of melancholy. The songs were unique, even daring, and to this day Scott 4 is looked upon as perhaps his best work. But quite surprisingly, considering the great success of its predecessors, it failed to make a dent in the charts.  

The commercial failure of the album alarmed his record company, and perhaps Walker too, and for his next four albums, whether by choice or by force, he shelved his own songs in favor of covers. Walker now looks upon these as lost years and refuses to allow any of these records to be rereleased.  

Though the situation kept him on the margins of the music world, and though his resurgence was some years off, Walker's appeal still burned brightly among those in the know, and there were plenty to champion his work. Most notably, Julian Cope, an English musician who rose from the punk scene of the 1970s, set a new wave of Walker appreciation in motion by producing a compilation of Walker’s songs, replete with a blank cover, so as to introduce the music without preconception or prejudice to a new generation. (Director Stephen Kijak might have taken a cue from Cope with this approach to the music, as one of the annoyances of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man is the decision to illustrate Walker's songs with silly, screensaver-like graphics, all pulsating lines and floating electronic ephemera. A better approach would have to been to play the songs over a black background or perhaps a still photograph of Walker himself; music like this requires no help from Mac graphics software.) 

Walker reunited with his old band for a few albums in the late 1970s before resuming his solo work, but he has released only three albums since 1980. The documentary concludes with footage of Walker’s sessions for his most recent album, The Drift (2006), and these scenes both magnify and defuse the myth and mystery even further. Unusual methods and instruments—flower pots, lead pipes, garbage cans and butchered meats—are employed in sessions in which the ballcapped singer, far from the shady, elusive figure of legend, appears not only amiable, friendly and forthcoming, but even familiar. Though music of startling originality emanates from the man, he seems just like the boy next door. 

It may be painful for a shy, nervous man to open up his process for scrutiny; it may be deflating to see his shrouded reputation laid bare and made commonplace; and greater fame and mainstream attention may deprive his fans of a bit of the prized cult status which they’ve enjoyed for decades. But Scott Walker: 30 Century Man will hopefully bring wider appreciation to a unique musical talent who deserves a spot among the exceptional popular musicians of his time.