Scott Walker
30 Century Man
Oscilloscope Laboratories

How did a ’60s teenage idol become one of the most respected and challenging avant-garde musicians of the past 20 years? This is the question posed at the beginning of the newly released DVD Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. Director Stephen Kijak ultimately leaves the question unanswered, wisely eschewing any attempt to rationalize or reconcile the two disparate identities that have bookended Scott Walker’s varied career. After all, how do you transpose a logical narrative on a life that in many ways resembles the career of Walk Hard’s comically erratic journeyman Dewey Cox? Both were young heartthrobs who scored their first hits as teenagers, gaining the adoration of scores of screaming highschoolers, before expanding their musical repertoire to include folk, classical, flamenco and every genre in between, and finally landing in an out-sized studio coaxing harmony and dissonance out of full orchestras and donkey noises (seriously: check out the three-minute mark of “Jolson and James” off of 2006’s The Drift).

But while Dewey Cox’s experimentalism is an obvious parody of LSD-fueled bombast, Walker’s adventurous work is as dark and soulful as it is wild and unpredictable. 30 Century Man is a tribute to the man’s pioneering spirit, focusing on the way listeners engage with and interpret his music, instead of forcing a pat biographical arc on its subject. Kijak fills most of the film with staged listening sessions where he plays Scott Walker favorites for a cadre of famous fans including David Bowie (who also produced the film), Brian Eno, Johnny Marr, Damon Albarn, Jonny and Colin Greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Richard Hawley, all of whom have profound, funny and occasionally moving things to say about Walker’s music. Oh, and Sting makes a brief appearance.

The film also features rare interviews with Walker as well as exclusive footage of The Drift recording sessions. In conversation, Walker is soft-spoken and sweetly guarded, politely declining to talk about his creative process and only cryptically alluding to his personal life. Of much more interest are the in-studio scenes that show Walker in his native environment, advising percussionists on the best way to punch a slab of raw pork or beseeching full orchestras to imitate evanescent waterfowl. To a newcomer, these absurdities might seem like little more than the excesses of an artist with unlimited access to studio-time and session musicians. But when you hear the song “Clara” as a whole, and you realize that the meat slaps add an unsettingly carnal edge to Walker’s ruminations on the public defiling of Mussolini’s mistress, a method to Walker’s madness begins to emerge.

Although Walker’s experimentalism has enjoyed near-universal critical acclaim (at least since the release of The Drift), Kijak often takes this praise for granted, stuffing his film with sycophants and lionizers who view the artist as nothing short of godlike. As someone who wasn’t immediately sold on his warbling baritone, spaced-out poetics and art-damaged symphonics, I would have liked to hear from some of the naysayers who feel ambivalence or antipathy toward Scott Walker, if only to hear the counter-arguments to those made by his supporters. For being such an outsider artist, the film would have you believe that Walker’s avant-garde compositions are as accessible as his teeny-bopper ballads.

No matter your opinion of Walker’s music, it’s hard to believe that 30 Century Man provides a very complete picture of the man’s legacy. Nevertheless, the film’s primary objective is to act as a sort of primer for newcomers and a backstage pass for long-time fans. Even viewers who are unmoved by Walker’s music will find much to enjoy in the surprisingly casual interviews with his esteemed peers. (At one point, Jonny Greenwood spaces out and forgets the title of OK Computer, then distinguishes it as “one of his band’s albums,” as if somebody watching a Scott Walker documentary has never heard of OK Computer). At the end of 30 Century Man, we don’t know any more about Walker’s habits, his love life, or why he virtually dropped off the face of the planet for 10 years. But instead of trying in vain to solicit these juicy bits of personal intrigue from the notoriously coy Walker, Kijak smartly realizes that the best way to get to know Scott Walker is by letting his music do the talking.
David Holmes