If Scott Walker: 30 Century Man doesn't quite know what to do with its subject, aside from revering him, well, who does?
Director Stephen Kijak, in this points-for-bravery, first-ever Scott Walker documentary, does at least shrewdly begin by invoking Orpheus, the famed poet-musician of Greek myth whose skills were serious enough to persuade Hades to give back his girlfriend. The idea is to make us think "wow" and "yikes" at the same time.
And that is about what it's like to witness Walker's long strange trip from '60s Britpop trio the Walker Brothers, who were not related or actually named Walker or even British in his case, to avant-garde recluse adored by fellow artistes as disparate as Sting and Radiohead and responsible for increasingly strange and infrequent recordings to which he won't ever listen upon their completion, probably because even he doesn't fully understand.
Yes, when Brian Eno says, "These are very, very spaced-out pop songs," and David Bowie says, "I have no idea what he's singing about," the artist being discussed is nothing if not a serious one. Kijak may even figure he doesn't need to work too hard; as an insidery profile of an ultimate outsider, this is music-doc manna.
Most of Scott Walker: 30 Century Man feels like having just been slipped an unknown LP from an earnestly intelligent fanboy friend who has locked the door and won't let you leave without listening. For starters, just take the voice -- that bewitching, reverb-abetted, somehow confidently tremulous baritone. Somebody in the movie says it's beautiful and unpleasant at the same time, and that's an understatement. One minute it's as trivial sounding as some sci-fi ritual ditty sung by Spock in the original Star Trek; the next it's, well, still kinda sci-fi, but with enough music-of-the-spheres seriousness to make you think the universe really is singing to you. Or just watch Walker go when he's in his studio. How demanding life must be within his selective fraternity of random sessioners; how exactingly he gathers, say, the sounds of meat being punched for a piece inspired by the execution of Mussolini.
Just get over the idea that your leg's being pulled, Spinal Tap-style, with that array of early solo albums: Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and, according to the prim narration, "what was regarded as his masterpiece of the period, Scott 4." Upon this last, incidentally, is inscribed a useful quotation from Camus: "A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."
The engagement to be had here isn't from parsing Walker's mysteries, or making a case that he's the peer of James Joyce or Francis Bacon or whomever. It's about the pleasure of witnessing one man's steady, uncompromising approach to his own unique artistic ideal.
Kijak also makes telling use of footage from archival performances, illustrating both Walker's divergence from American popular music and his own individual consistency. Whether in a rudimentary TV spot from the '60s or an actual music video from the '80s, Walker wears the given era's trappings awkwardly. Not because he's unattractive; quite the contrary, as several people here attest. Not because he's a poseur; even more people, including the man himself, will attest to the conviction with which he has shunned public attention. No, he doesn't fit in because the trappings can't trap him -- or even seem to keep up. Quite clearly Scott Walker has always been ahead of his time.
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man opens Friday, January 23, 2009 at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit www.landmarktheatres.com. An opening night party, sponsored by Noise Pop, will be held at 9:30pm Friday, January 23 (TONIGHT) at Casanova, 527 Valencia Street, San Francisco, with director Stephen Kijak as DJ. Kijak will speak to opening weekend audiences: at Opera Plaza in SF on Friday, January 23 at both evening shows, and at Shattuck in Berkeley on Saturday, January 24 at late afternoon and early evening shows.