SALT LAKE CITY — A narrow ray of light passes through a triangular prism, breaking into a rainbow. Two men in suits shake hands, seemingly oblivious to the fact that one of them is on fire. An enormous pig floats in the air above a power station. All these images from Pink Floyd album covers (The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals, respectively) have become pop culture icons, and all were created by the English design group Hipgnosis. Founded in 1970 by artists Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, the group would go on to work not just with Pink Floyd but also Led Zeppelin, Wings, AC/DC, Peter Gabriel, and many, many more musicians. Through these collaborations across the 1970s and early ’80s, their visual sensibility essentially became the aesthetic of rock music during that period. Now the documentary Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis), currently playing at the Sundance Film Festival, delves into the group’s history.
For dedicated rock fans, few of the stories in this film are likely to be new. Thorgerson, Powell, and their contemporaries have told and retold them over the years. Powell appears, along with Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, Noel Gallagher, and others. The film is like a best-of compilation, supplemented by a wealth of behind-the-scenes pictures and footage. It’s fun to see the unused photos from the Wish You Were Here shoot, assembled in sequence to create almost an animation of the two men meeting on a studio backlot, or hear an explanation of the chemical process behind the color-changing cover of Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door. These anecdotes provide helpful insights into the mundane logistics that often underlie fantastical imagery. It’s easy to see Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here cover and not consider the effort to find a stuntman willing to be set on fire. And we hear in full about the infamous fiasco during shooting at Battersea Power Station for the cover of Floyd’s Animals, in which the iconic pig balloon flew away from them.
Structurally, though, the film is oddly clumsy in ways that typify documentaries steered by directors who are experienced in fiction films but venturing into nonfiction for the first time, as director Anton Corbijn is here. Multiple times, interview subjects point out the cleverness of the name “Hipgnosis,” in nearly identical ways. (It’s “hip” and new, plus “gnosis,” meaning “spiritual knowledge.” Get it? If you don’t, someone else will be sure to say it again.) One sequence featuring talking heads musing on contemporary album cover design versus Hipgnosis’s heyday feels natural to slot into the denouement, yet instead, it appears roughly in the middle of the runtime, making for a jarring chronological hop back and forth. The film also commits a cardinal nonfiction sin of employing animation to illustrate events with insufficient documentation, but only doing so sporadically, making these sections feel out of place.
Still, Corbijn comes from his own background in photography and art, and clearly has a warm rapport with his interviewees. The film is at its best when its relaxed, almost hangout-like mood results in entertaining asides. During a discussion of the cover for the Paul McCartney and Wings single “Getting Closer,” there’s an unexpected but wildly funny break in the flow when McCartney cannot recall that he ever put out a song with art featuring a man walking a lobster on a leash. (Lest any fans worry over his mental state, rest assured that he does eventually remember.) More moments like this would have been most welcome. As it stands, Squaring the Circle is a reasonably informative, if rather dry, look at a subject with much more potential for exploration.
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) screens at the Sundance Film Festival through January 28.
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