“It was like nothing anyone had ever seen before—a weird fusion of live action, story-telling and of the surreal.”–Pink Floyd the Wall Director Alan Parker on the movie’s Cannes premiere
DIRECTED BY: Alan Parker
FEATURING: Bob Geldof, Kevin McKeon, Jenny Wright, Bob Hoskins
PLOT: The movie begins with a man sitting motionless in a chair in a hotel room. A series of scrambled flashbacks, fantasies and impressions tell the story of Pink, who grew up fatherless but became a successful, if unhappy, rock star prone to tantrums and bouts of severe depression. Eventually, Pink’s manager and a crowd of roadies and doctors break down the hotel room door and give him a shot which revives him; his body rots, he peels it away to reveal himself as a fascist dictator who goes onstage to perform.
- “The Wall” began life as a 1979 concept album by Pink Floyd. The double LP and the single “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” both reached #1 on Billboard’s U.S. charts. “The Wall” remains one of the 50 top selling albums of all time to this day.
- Most of the incidents in The Wall stem from Roger Waters’ personal history; a few, however, are taken from the life of former Pink Floyd lead singer Syd Barrett, a psychedelic drug abuser whose erratic behavior caused him to be kicked out of the band and to eventually become a recluse.
- Almost all of the songs from the original album appear in the movie, sometimes in slightly altered forms.
- With Alan Parker as producer, The Wall movie was originally intended to be a concert film with animated sequences and a few specially shot live action scenes. When the concert footage was found to be unusable, the project was reimagined as a (semi-) narrative film with Parker as director.
- Pink Floyd singer/bassist and Wall librettist Roger Waters originally wanted to play the lead, but after a poor screen test fellow musician Bob Geldof was cast instead. Ironically, Geldof, lead singer for the Irish punk band The Boomtown Rats, was reportedly not a Floyd fan.
- Parker and Waters clashed on the set, with the director almost quitting several times.
- Designer/animator Gerald Scarfe was a caricaturist and political cartoonist before he began collaborating with Pink Floyd.
- The cheering extras at the fascist concert were actual white supremacists.
- Director Parker called The Wall “the most expensive student film ever made.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Picking a single image to represent The Wall is a tough assignment. Among the live-action sequences, the vision of British schoolchildren in faceless blob masks marching into a meat-grinder is fairly unforgettable. It would be criminal, though, to elevate any mere photograph over Gerald Scarfe’s animations; even picking among them is a tough call. Though short, these bizarre and horrific images blaze across the screen in such a haunting way that their impact makes up for the brevity. We’re going to select the scene of the goosestepping fascist hammers as the most unforgettable (partly because the hammer imagery that recurs throughout the movie reaches a startling peak with this scene, and partly because Sacrfe’s crossed hammer symbol proved so iconic that it was adopted by actual fascist groups). If you chose the genitalia-shaped flowers who entwine, mate, and then grow teeth and viciously rip into each other before the female swallows the male whole, however, we couldn’t argue against it.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Pink Floyd: the Wall is a collaboration between three separate
Original trailer for Pink Floyd The Wall
creative talents. In 1979 Roger Waters performed a public self-psychoanalysis by writing a bombastic, self-indulgent rock opera, full of catchy melodies and sardonic lyrics. When it came time to adapt the album into a movie, he enlisted political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe to provide animated segments, which ultimately included a surrealistic version of the bombing of London during World War II, a judge who is literally an ass, and some of the scariest cartoon vaginas ever drawn. Bringing it all together was director Alan Parker (Midnight Express), who devised fantastic over-the-top live action visuals to complement the music and found a way to weave the competing thematic strands (autobiography, social commentary, and spur-of-the-moment surrealistic flights of fancy) into something comprehensible, while nonetheless keeping it defiantly weird. Trying to meld these three separate creative egos on a project whose source material was already grandiose and scattershot could easily have produced an incoherent, pretentious mess. Remarkably, the result instead is a semi-coherent, pretentious near-masterpiece.
COMMENTS: Watching, or listening, to Pink Floyd: The Wall is one miserable experience. All the key elements of a depressing film are on display: madness, alienation, the atrocities of war, mind-numbing drug addiction, infidelity, fascism… well, you get my drift. This is not an upbeat or fun movie by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, the film is constructed in such a skillful manner by director Alan Parker that it is hard not to justify its reputation as a work of art.
Upon the opening scene we see the protagonist rock star “Pink” (Bob Geldof) in his hotel room staring blankly at the television screen with a long burned out cigarette perched between his fingers. Pink is in this position and state of mind for many of his scenes. It is open to interpretation, but perhaps all of the scenes of the film are what is playing out in his unraveling mind. The images correlate to the lyrics of each song. We start off learning of Pink’s father’s death in World War II. His bunker was blown to bits in an air raid bombardment. Pink never knew his father and it is clear that this had a major impact in his childhood, as evidenced by a scene where he is playing in a park as a young child and desperately tries clinging on to a hand of an unsuspecting and unwilling male father figure. As Pink grows up and goes to school he’s subjected to the harsh British educational system. He is caught scribbling poetry into his notebook and is promptly humiliated, then smacked on the knuckles by his teacher’s pointing stick. This gets him sent directly to the evil headmaster’s office. During this sequence, however, we are privy to a weird fantasy in Pink’s young mind: students, marching like mindless drones onto a conveyor belt and wearing creepy faceless masks, fall limp into a grinding machine which churns them out as strands of meat. Yet, rebellion and anarchy eventually take over the fantasy as students trash the school and set it on fire.
Now that the themes of war and education have been touched upon we can move on to another main component of the film: sex. Pink’s descent into madness is exacerbated by his wife’s infidelity. In an early scene, she strips in an unsuccessful attempt to seduce him; he only becomes annoyed that she is blocking the soccer game on TV. His lack of affection drives her away to the arms of another man. Sex seems to be a mere diversion for Pink, and one that he’s seldom interested in. Of course, being a rock star you will get your share of groupies; however, no girl could prepare for being alone with this guy. A female fan’s amazement at his array of guitars and vast bathtub quickly turns to fear as he trashes his hotel room in true rock star fervor, winging furniture and wine bottles in her direction.
Bob Geldof does an impeccable job as the deadened rock star. He has almost no lines of dialogue outside of screaming “stop!” or howling obscenities as he trashes his hotel room. Most of his lines are lip synched to Roger Waters lyrics. His empty stares and body language are all that is needed to make this a good performance. Geldof’s best scene is when he “transforms” himself by shaving off his body hair… eyebrows included. (This scene was culled directly from an incident involving former Floyd member Syd Barrett, who once did the same at a dinner party). For some reason, it is very disconcerting to see a person without eyebrows. By the end of the film Pink has morphed into a dictator performing for his captive audience/fascist regime, complete with a crossed hammer insignia in place of swastikas and arms struck in Nazi-esque poses. White supremacists were actually hired as extras for these scenes, adding to the rally’s already chaotic and anarchic nature.
Now that you have the gist of the film, we’ll get to the heart of what’s great and weird about this movie… those animation sequences. All I can say is…wow! They are psychedelic in a nature, but bleak nonetheless. Warplanes turn into crosses. The Union Jack also becomes a bloody cross. Flowers that blatantly resemble genitalia writhe and twist in a quest for sexual dominance. Marching hammers goose-step like rhythmic soldiers. The coup-de-grace is the final animation sequence that portrays Pink on trial. Here we witness the judge as a talking anus with a scrotum for a chin; a former parochial teacher hanging by strings like a marionette; Pink’s wife transformed into a monstrous scorpion.
Scarfe’s animations are weird and amazing. The live action is the meat of the film and the animation is the pudding, but how can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…pretty cosmic; employing almost no dialogue, it uses fantasies, animation and assorted psychedelic froufrou to flesh out a rock album more enthusiastically than any film has since ‘Tommy.'”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Pink Floyd The Wall: A Complete Analysis – A massive website containing a meticulous, book length analysis of the movie/album by Bret Urich; an obsessive, and impressive, achievement
Pink Floyd: The Wall :: rogerebert.com :: Great Movies – Roger Ebert’s appreciative essay on The Wall for his “Great Movies” series
Sonic Youthquake – Short retrospective article on The Wall by Entertainment Weekly’s Sunny Lee
DVD INFO: Sony’s 2005 “25th Anniversary Deluxe Edition” (buy) contains just about all the special features a fan could hope to find on a single disc. (Oddly, the “25th anniversary” refers to the date of the album release rather than the movie). “The Other Side of the Wall” is an informative 1982 promotional documentary profiling all four principal collaborators (Roger Waters, Alan Parker, Bob Geldof and Gerald Scarfe). “Retrospective: Looking Back at the Wall” is another series of interviews conducted in 1999 and featuring reminiscences from Waters, Parker, Scarfe, producer Alan Marshall, director of photography Peter Bizou, and music producer James Guthrie, about forty minutes in length. (Waters, Parker and Scarfe all independently bring up the issue of clashing egos on the set, and all three independently express deep reservations about the finished product). Although the raw footage is in poor condition, a big bonus for Floyd fans is the video for “Hey You,” the anthem to loneliness that was cut from the final film. There’s also a new (ho-hum) music video for “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2,” the original trailer, and large galleries of stills and concept art by Scarfe. There’s an option to watch the movie with lyrics subtitled. The biggest special feature is doubtlessly the film commentary by Waters and Scarfe, who are still chummy after all these years. (Waters is nothing like you’d probably imagine; he’s upbeat, optimistic and funny. Recall that he has had 20 years to adjust his medication, however). Finally, we note a minor Easter Egg: pressing “9” on any of the DVD’s numerous sub-menus will play a brief sound clip.
Pink Floyd the Wall is not (yet) on Blu-ray; we’ll update this page when it arrives in the format.