[5 June 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
In the early 70s, when Brian Eno was known (if, indeed he was known at all) as the glammed out synthesizer artist in the emerging British band Roxy Music, few could have guessed that he would become one of the most significant musicians of the decade. His early appearances with the band suggested a kind of theatrical presence, perhaps even a bit of an affectation. He even once proclaimed himself to be the band’s “non-musician”, which was a bit of an affirmation of these types of readings.
Of course, for those of us who were listening to the complex textures Eno was bringing to Bryan Ferry and Phil Manzanera’s respectively singular and dynamic approaches on those first two records (1972’s Roxy Music and 1973’s For Your Pleasure), it was clear his presence was crucial. But ego-tripping and all the attendant pressures of burgeoning fame, hectic touring schedules, and artistic differences (rock writer clichés, perhaps, but these are always perfectly relevant issues) conspired to find Eno leaving the band in 1973, and striking out as a solo artist, producer, and (eventually) legendarily influential pioneer in electronic music.
This documentary, which emphasizes precisely this period from the rise of Roxy Music through Eno’s early solo career and toward his late ‘70s status as studio wizard and revered sonic innovator, leaves little doubt as to Eno’s broad significance. Providing an overview of the string of extraordinary (but then little-heard) records Here Come the Warm Jets (1973), Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974), Another Green World and Discreet Music (both 1975) and Before and After Science (1977) and following Eno through his astoundingly successful collaborations with David Bowie (including those on his career highlight record Low (1977)), Talking Heads, Devo, and others, this doc provides a look at one of the most exciting figures in rock music at his creative peak. So, how is it that it is so painfully dull and free of insight?
We can begin to answer this question just by looking at the cover of the DVD. Prominently alerting us to the fact that this film is neither endorsed by or in any way associated with Eno himself, this reverent doc suffers from a crippling lack of access. There are no interviews with Eno, of course, but also no Bowie, no Brian Ferry, no David Byrne, no Robert Fripp (he of the Eno-directed guitar work on Bowie’s unstoppable song “Heroes”). Indeed, there are interviews with artists who’d worked with Eno, but they are almost all of them strangers to this reviewer – Hans-Joachim Rodelius or Lloyd Watson, anyone? – and thus their authority feels suspect.
In the absence of any obvious choices (such as, maybe, anyone from Roxy Music!), the film relies instead on a raft of rock critics who spend a lot of time imagining stuff about what might have been going on in Eno’s “alien” head. It all begins to feel a bit exploitative, and not a little boring. I mean, anyone can imagine what’s going on in his head. The reason a film like this is worth watching is if it provides actual insight into that head!
Or, perhaps put more plainly: let’s say someone is compiling an unauthorized biography about you. How many of your closest friends and relatives and collaborators will get involved even though they know you don’t want them to? Who among your former colleagues and acquaintances will say yes to talking behind your back? Will those people provide worthy insight into your artistry, your character, your life?
There can be no doubt that Eno is a towering figure in music history. Though largely unknown in the ‘70s to anyone outside of a small subculture of music fanatic, liner note obsessives, and fellow musicians, Eno’s sway over glam, ambient music, the punk scene, electronica, New Wave, and just about any band that gets tagged with the “indie” label today, is amazing. The most rewarding thing about sitting through this extraordinarily long film – at 2 ½ hours it is at least an hour too long given the lack of access to any more relevant interviewees – is that it offers a stirring opportunity to revisit some of the most seminal music from a fascinatingly transitional period in pop music. Too bad that the filmmakers (there is no director credit, strangely) forged ahead without support rather than working toward a fuller picture of their subject.