United Kingdom, 2014. Directed by Roger Waters and Sean Evans. 132 minutes. ★★★
Roger Waters, the famously megalomaniacal former bassist, songwriter, and creative generalissimo behind Pink Floyd, spent the early 2010s touring the world with The Wall, the Floyd’s 1979 magnum opus. Waters updated the legendary stage show (so complex and expensive in 1980 that the band could afford to perform it in only four cities) for a new generation. He added a renewed focus on the tragedy and injustice of war and the corruption of government and the media, the topics that have dominated his work over the last three decades. This wasn’t the work of an irrelevant classic-rock dinosaur milking his back catalog for a quick buck. Waters (for all his faults) has never lacked passion and fury, and the performances crackled with a vitality surprising for a sixty-something artist touring a thirty-year-old record. He even managed to get his former bandmates Dave Gilmour and Nick Mason to join him for a night.
You had to be there, as the saying goes, but if you weren’t—or if you were (like I was, in 2010, at the United Center in Chicago) and want to relive the memories—Roger Waters: The Wall is an acceptable substitute for the real thing. It doesn’t possess the artistry of the top rank of concert films (Stop Making Sense, for example), it does approximate the experience with a minimum of fuss. The politicking is heavy-handed even by Waters’s standards. And I’m not sure why Waters and co-director Sean Evans think we’d rather watch Rog sing “The Trial” instead of watching the film projected on the Wall behind him.
But the band is in top form (although, really, would it have killed anyone to include the performances with Gilmour and Mason in the film proper instead of relegating them to DVD special features?) and the show contains many fine moments: dancing schoolkids banishing a giant teacher puppet; Waters performing a duet with a recording of himself from a 1980 gig; the “fascist” song sequence that leads up to the story’s climax. And let’s not forget Gerald Scarfe’s animations, grotesquely psychedelic yet timeless. It won’t be the last time you watch some blinkered authority figure talk out of his anus, I guarantee you that.
But the most compelling footage doesn’t document the performances. Interspersed between the concert sequences are scenes of Waters taking a road trip across Europe to visit the gravesites of his father (who died in Italy during World War II) and grandfather (who died in France during World War I). Waters’s songwriting has always been haunted by his father’s death, a loss he has often mourned through bombast. The sight of the seventy-year-old rock star blowing the funereal notes of “Outside the Wall” at a memorial in Anzio could be the most powerful artistic expression of that grief, due to its intimacy.
And what could be more appropriate? After all, the central theme of The Wall is the importance of reaching out and connecting to others instead of living “comfortably numb” but isolated lives. One hopes that Roger Waters: The Wall represents one more brick removed from its creator’s wall.