January 3, 2016

Roger Waters: The Wall (2015)

We must surely all agree that Pink Floyd's concept album The Wall is one of the best popular music records of all time. Released in 1979 it became a massive international hit, and led to the production of Alan Parker's 1982 film adaptation starring Bob Geldof. In 1990, and after he had acrimoniously quit the band, the album's chief architect Roger Waters staged a live rendition on the site of the Berlin Wall. Between 2010 and 2013 he toured the album around the world in a massive live spectacular featuring digital imagery and animation, pyrotechnics and a massive life-size wall constructed between the performers and the audience over the course of the concert. The original album remains the third highest-selling album of all time in the USA. The international concert tour became the highest-grossing musical tour by a solo artist.

Never to let the idea lie fallow, Waters now extends The Wall again with the concert feature Roger Waters: The Wall. Co-directed with Sean Evans, it reproduces the exceptional live show for a movie-going audience. It intersperses the music with a striking and stylised sort of autobiographical art film, one that gently digs into the inspirations and the experiences that led to The Wall's creation.

There are really two things one can review here: the Wall concert itself, and the film that Waters and Evans have framed around it. For me the latter is more interesting and relevant in terms of reviewing it as a film, but it is worth highlighting just what a tremendous concert it is. It faultlessly combines the original songs from The Wall with aggressively contemporary comment on human conflict. It is in places rather depressing to watch, since the anti-war themes developed back in 1979 are just as relevant 35 years later. One moment in particular stands out, recreating the London police shooting of Brazilian immigrant John Charles De Menezes in an abstract but stark manner. It hits you like a rabbit punch to the guts. That's only one moment: the concert is littered with them.

All in all it is a masterpiece of large-scale theatre, blending a rock concert with opera, macro-puppetry, animation, and a spectacular light show. Seen in person it is a tremendously over-powering experience. Waters pretty much throws a virtual tsunami of sound and vision at his audience, to such a degree that it's pretty much impossible to avoid getting swept away with it all.

The best feature of this new film is that Waters and Evans manage to capture a tremendous amount of that emotion and energy on the screen. Filmed recordings of live performances never work as well as the original work. How could they? Performance is fleeting and ephemeral, and relies on a physical engagement between performer and audience to achieve its emotional effect. The screen image works differently: it can still emotionally affect the viewer, but in a slightly less personal way. The good news with Roger Waters: The Wall is that Waters and Evans get about as close to the effect of the live show as they can manage within the confines of the film medium. If you missed the world tour, this film is actually an exceptional substitute.

Peppered between the live songs is a series of vignettes following Waters as he drives a Bentley from France to Italy in order to visit the beach where his father was killed in action during World War II. Waters never met his father, but the emotional scars he has felt from his absence have driven every iteration of The Wall over the decades. One scene sees Waters playing "Outside the Wall" with a trumpet at his father's grave. Another sees him and his children visiting his grandfather's grave - his grandfather having died in action in the First World War. Some of the scenes are documentary in nature. Others feel like abstract art pieces. Each of them feel like a tiny illumination about Roger Waters, and what led him to create his most iconic musical work. I suspect some viewers will get irritated by these vignettes, finding them self-important and intrusive. Personally I adore them. I think they enhance the concert scenes that they book-end.

The bottom line is that this is a brilliantly shot and edited record of a phenomenal rock concert event, enhanced with autobiography and boasting some of the strongest emotional moments I have experienced on screen in the past year. Fans of Pink Floyd and Waters' solo work will almost certainly have seen it already. Everyone else should absolutely give it a viewing. It's an enormously powerful work from one of the world's most singular talents.

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