Absolutely Curtains: The Movies of Pink Floyd

Ever since my mid-teens, the music of Pink Floyd has had an immense impression on me (I thank my older brothers David and Paul for their encouragement). So this post is really just an excuse to talk about their music through the largely tenuous, but admittedly relevant, link of films – films, of course, that feature Pink Floyd’s fabulous music on the soundtracks.

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Pink Floyd in early 1968: Syd Barrett, David Gilmour, Richard Wright (on bike), Nick Mason and Roger Waters (front)

From Piper at the Gates of Dawn to their recent revival with The Endless River, Pink Floyd’s music has passed through a boundless cacophony of creative genius – through Syd Barrett’s madcap trailblazing in the mid to late 60s, the release of the earth-shattering and brain-damaging brilliance of The Dark Side of the Moon in 1973, Roger Waters unforgettable rock opus The Wall from 1979, and the sublime guitar-based artistry of David Gilmour in the Waters-less era of the last three decades. In experiencing their soundtracks on films such as More and Zabriskie Point, and on their own concert films such as Live at Pompeii and P.U.L.S.E., we can get a snapshot of the band’s magnificent work. I guess what you can collectively garner from the seven films glimpsed at below is the progression of a ceaselessly awesome band coming out of the swinging sixties in Britain through the counterculture movement and onto a more deeply-set embrace of musical and visual expressionism in the late 20th Century.

The Committee (1968 Peter Sykes)

In 1968, having parted ways with their out-of-control front-man Syd Barrett, the future was uncertain for Pink Floyd. However, the success of A Saucerful of Secrets, their second studio album (which had contributions from Barrett) ensured a momentum towards superstardom. It would appear that between the departure of Barrett and the release of Secrets, the band contributed some instrumentals to a little known British experimental film starring Paul Jones (from later Manfred Mann fame). The Committee is a short and disturbing slice of 60s noir, and despite its low key release and apparent modest budget, the film comes across as assured, intelligent and high-brow. The inclusion of Pink Floyd’s quality music lends itself to the noir-ish vibe – eight short pieces are interspersed across the 55 minute running time. One such piece is an early recording of the menacing masterpiece ‘Careful with That Axe, Eugene’, which was later included as a B-side to their single ‘Point Me at the Sky’. The film was only re-released recently as part of a bumper boxset compilation called Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965–1972.

More (1969 Barbet Schroeder)

Although it came only a year later, More was, well, more ‘loosey-goosey’ with its content than The Committee. It was written and directed by Barbet Schroeder, whose production company had released several Nouvelle Vague films prior to this. It is set on the island of Ibiza (before all the raves) and focused on two things mainly – lots of drugs and lots of sex. In summary, there is a German math student who says ‘fuck all that’ and heads to Paris where he meets a free-spirited pixie girl from America. He follows her to Ibiza and they become lovers, later becoming heroin addicts and thus destroying their lives. Not fully sure what the message is, but I imagine it is something along the lines of ‘drugs are bad, but they create a hell of a ride!’ Pretty reckless? Sure. But More is not a terrible film. In fact it has a good commentary on the spiralling counterculture years. And you cannot overlook the atmospheric and bluesy soundtrack provided by the Floyd. Songs like ‘Cirrus Minor’, ‘Green is the Colour’ (featuring drummer Nick Mason’s then-wife on tin whistle) and ‘Cymbaline’ all showcase a precursor to the experimental sounds that would blow people away in the 1970s. ‘The Nile Song’ too is an uncharacteristically heavy rock piece sung by Gilmour that harks back towards the LSD-laden days of Syd Barrett, and it certainly sits very well in the story here.

Zabriskie Point (1970 Michelangelo Antonioni)

A year later: another film dealing with the counterculture movement, and another series of tunes from Pink Floyd. This time it is set in the US and directed by the darling of European artistic filmmaking, Michelangelo Antonioni. Zabriskie Point is a meandering drama partially shot on location in Death Valley, California. Here we have two wayward youngsters again – a student activist (who can also fly a plane) and a hippie dropout – who chance-meet in the desert and end up having sex (the famous ‘orgy’ scene that was colourfully re-imagined in The Smashing Pumpkins music video for ‘Today’). The film, in all fairness, is a bit of a mess. It is no surprise that it was a box office bomb (pun intended). But there is something very watchable in Antonioni’s stark cinematography and his attempt, at least, to capture a snippet of the un-quantifiable American Dream. In Pink Floyd, he also had a jigsaw piece that allowed the films’ parts to stick together over a lasting period – it is now a cult classic. The pre-credits’ ending is visually and musically unforgettable – a girl imagines a house built into the side of a mountain exploding, and this is followed by vignettes of other things being blown up in slow motion. This striking and violent visual attack is complimented by the eerie and shrieking sounds of ‘Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up’, which was actually a re-recording of ‘Careful with That Axe, Eugene’. Other Pink Floyd contributions on the soundtrack include some country-style jams and vocal solos from David Gilmour, which become more refined on songs such as ‘A Pillow of Winds’ and ‘Fearless’ from their 1971 album Meddle.

La Vallée (Obscured by Clouds) (1972 Barbet Schroeder)

Barbet Schroeder once again recruited Pink Floyd to have their music used on his 1972 film La Vallée (albeit in a less audible way). This strange little film follows a consul’s wife as she journeys to the depths of the Papua New Guinea jungles with a group of explorers in search of rare exotic bird feathers. Essentially this is a hippie-inspired treatise about internal discovery and cross-cultural interactions. If it wasn’t so condescending and hollow, it may still be regarded as an intriguing nugget of film history. Alas, we do have another Pink Floyd soundtrack to revel in. Well, kind of. The band were paid to record the soundtrack after watching a cut of the film, which they did. But having been put under pressure from the production company during the recordings, they decided to release the songs under an album called Obscured by Clouds instead. The soundtrack was still used by Schroeder in the film and he decided to re-title it to La Vallée (Obscured by Clouds) on its release so as to ensure its connection with the band. What is most interesting about the songs on Obscured by Clouds is that they are quite contrasting to the tracks from The Dark Side of the Moon, an album they were making at the same time. That’s not to say the album is bad. Songs such as ‘Wot’s…Uh the Deal?’, ‘Burning Bridges’ and ‘Free Four’ are enjoyable ballads with gentle vocals from Gilmour and soft piano pieces from Richard Wright.

Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972 Adrian Maben)

Such was the growing popularity of Pink Floyd in the early 70s, everyone seemed to want a piece of them. They extensively toured across the US and Europe at that time, and they also released three albums between late 1969 and 1971 – Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother and Meddle. The latter is seen as the key transitional album between pre-Barrett Floyd and post-Barrett Floyd. Its release in October 1971 was marked by a live set that was performed in an empty, ancient Roman amphitheatre at Pompeii. The set was organised by Adrian Maben and shot by Willy Kurant and Gábor Pogány over four days. The band chose to perform two tracks from the new album – ‘Echoes’ (in two parts) and ‘One of These Days’ – as well as a few of their earlier songs. The film was put together with some footage filmed at a studio in Paris and was released in 1972 with many subsequent re-releases and different versions following down through the years. It is a true gem of concert documentary films – an amazing visual treasure accompanied by extraordinary and powerful sounds by a band reaching the heights of their influence. ‘One of These Days’ is a particular stand-out, with Nick Mason’s incredible drumming  captured in intimate detail (apparently, footage of the rest of the band performing during that track was lost during the edits).

Pink Floyd – The Wall (1982 Alan Parker)

The most obvious choice for a ‘Pink Floyd film’ is of course Alan Parker’s 1982 feature that dramatises and animates their hugely popular and influential concept album The Wall from 1979. The double album was conceived as a rock opera by Roger Waters largely based on his own life but also modelled on the downfall of Syd Barrett. The idea spawned out of an incident he instigated while on tour in the US in 1977, where he lost control and spat on the audience. He had become frustrated with the commercial and corporate approach to the music business. As the album developed, Waters intended to make an accompanying film to The Wall but this never materialised and the idea was only resurrected when upcoming director Parker expressed interest after the album’s release. Waters wrote the screenplay, while Gerald Scarfe, a political cartoonist who created Pink Floyd’s extraordinary music video to ‘Welcome to the Machine’, made the animations. The film focuses on the life of Pink (played by Bob Geldof), who was born before World War II, hears of his father’s death on the battlefield, struggles at school, and then slowly unravels into madness after becoming a rock star. Although Geldof did not set the world alight with his acting skills, the film certainly stands the test of time as a masterful blend of astounding music, disturbing animation and highly provocative imagery, all combining to affirm Waters stunning vision. There are so many stand-outs: the scene where Pink imagines school children being lined up on a conveyor belt and pushed through a meat grinder (for ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’), or the animated black and red striped hammers marching through a ruined town (for ‘Waiting for the Worms’). There has not being anything like it since and its metaphors and symbolism could not be more appropriate even today. It is without surprise that Roger Waters, who at 75, still rocks out to thousands of people around the world today, presenting the same messages through even more impressive visual and light shows.

P.U.L.S.E. (1995 David Mallet)

After Waters left Pink Floyd in 1985 and settled out of court with Mason, Gilmour and Wright over the use of the band’s name and material, Pink Floyd lived on. It took on a different creative direction under the leadership of Gilmour – three studio albums have since been released in A Momentary Lapse of Reason, The Division Bell and The Endless River. Although much debate has raged over the quality of these three outputs, it is without doubt that several musical gems have been offered forth. The best of Momentary and Division are included here on P.U.L.S.E., the live recording of the band’s concert at Earls Court in London from 1994. Learning to Fly, Sorrow, Coming Back to Life and Keep Talking (which includes Stephen Hawkings on vocal) along with classics such as Shine On You Crazy Diamond are all performed excellently by the remaining trio. The film, which was released on VHS and Laserdisc, accompanied a live album that offered the best of their ‘Division Bell’ tour of that year. It was in fact the first multimedia album to reach number one in the US and the UK – the early packaged versions even came with a flashing LED, which was meant to signify the ‘pulse’ of the title. The concept around the film, the album and the associated artwork (by regular Floyd designer Storm Thorgerson) demonstrated that the spirit of Pink Floyd was still very much alive. It’s just a shame that Waters (or Barrett for that matter) was not still part of it.

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