Thursday, June 8, 2023

film review: Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)


Directed by Anton Corbijn

ChinoKino score: A

Review by Allan Tong

Atom Heart Mother, Band on the Run, Peter Gabriel 2, Houses of the Holy, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Dark Side of the Moon. Those are a few of the album covers that legendary studio, Hipgnosis, designed in the 1970s, and this terrific, entertaining new documentary tells their story.

That story centers on company founders Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey (Po) Powell, two Cambridge lads who were mates with a young band called Pink Floyd in the mid-1960s. The careers of Hipgnosis and Pink Floyd would be forever linked as the thorny, but brilliant Thorgerson and the meticulous Powell designed most of the Floyd's early and later albums. Both entities hit the jackpot with 1973's Dark Side of the Moon, with the multi-coloured prism on the cover forever being the band's visual signature.

The documentary is generous with vintage interviews of Thorgerson (who died in 2013) and contemporary ones of Powell, former collaborators as well as clients Pink Floyd (Waters, Gilmour and Mason), Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Peter Gabriel, and Graham Gouldman of 10CC. Noel Gallagher offers an outsider's perspective as a fan, and is as witty as always. The meat of the film lies in the astonishing stories of some of Hipgnosis' most famous covers. For Wish You Were Here, Powell set a stuntman on fire 15 times, until the stuntman's face nearly burned. Remember, these were the days before Photoshop. For Wings' Greatest Hits, the duo flew to the top of Mount Everest by helicopter to photograph a small statue that Paul McCartney had bought. Terrified of heights, Powell risked sliding down thousands of icy feet to his death. Of course, Hipgnosis could have just placed the statue on a bed of salt inside their London studio, but, hey, that would have been too easy.

It was also the 1970s, after all, the golden age of rock albums which sold in the multi-millions, and Hipgnosis was charging a fortune to design covers. That may boggle today's young minds, as Gallagher notes, who see only a postage-stamp icon of an album on their phones. However, covers were a big deal back in the day because they shaped the image of a band and conveyed the message of the music within.

Director Anton Corbijn evocatively lights his interviews in black and white and uses striking animation to announce each album cover like a chapter page in a book. Corbijn knows a thing or two about album covers, since he has photographed a few for bands like U2.

The hero and villain of this story is Thorgerson, whom everyone in the film recalls as a pain in the ass, but also sharp and charming. He and the more level-headed Powell rode the excesses of 1970s rock until they crashed in the early-1980s in bankruptcy and acrimony. It was a bitter ending, which abruptly ends the film and begs for more detail. However, enough time has passed to heal those wounds and celebrate the surreal imagination of the greatest album designers of all time.

Squaring the Circle opens Friday, June 9 in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Victoria in select cinemas, then expands to other cities in Ontario as well as Quebec City and Charlottetown this month.

No comments:

Post a Comment