It should hardly come as a surprise that Anton Corbijn would want to make a movie about iconic rock ‘n’ roll looks. Before he began directing feature films with 2007’s striking Joy Division drama “Control,” after all, Corbijn was responsible for quite a few notable rock looks of his own as a design director and rock photographer responsible for U2’s “The Joshua Tree” album cover, among many others.
So when the Dutch photographer-turned-director, whose other films include “The Americans” and “A Most Wanted Man,” turns to rock iconography for the documentary “Squaring the Circle (the story of hipgnosis),” it’s clear that the guy knows what he’s talking about — not that Corbijn himelf does the talking in the film, which had its world premiere on Friday at the Telluride Film Festival.
Instead, he leaves the storytelling to the illustrious likes of Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, David Gilmour and Nick Mason, and many others. All of those luminaries crossed paths with the curious London-based design company Hipgnosis, which for a stretch from the late 1960s to the early ’80s was the go-to agency for a bewildering variety of album covers that pretty much defined an era in rock.
Hipgnosis was responsible for the prism on Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” along with most of that band’s other covers; the all-star jailbreak on McCartney and Wings’ “Band on the Run”; the naked kids climbing a mystical stone landscape for Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy”; Peter Gabriel’s first three solo albums, each a little weirder than the last; and lots more, much of which is examined in some detail in “Squaring the Circle.”
Sometimes, admittedly, the stories are more interesting than the work: “Wings Greatest,” the hits compilation from McCartney’s second band, doesn’t have a terribly interesting cover, but it does make for a pointed example of how ridiculous rock excess extended even to album cover shoots in the ’70s and ’80s.
While you might expect an image-savvy director like Corbijn to play up the visual over the verbal, he also knows that an agency as offbeat as Hipgnosis deserves a lot of storytelling. The company grew out of a London party that ended in a drug bust that doubled as a (non-romantic) meet-cute between a pair of eccentric and artistic young men, Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell.
Po, as everyone called Powell, was an aspiring photographer, Storm some kind of mad genius with an eye for design and a huge stubborn streak. (One of the most amusing sequences in “Squaring the Circle” finds wide variety of friends and acquaintances talking about how difficult and unpleasant Storm could be; when a legendary jerk like Roger Waters talks about what a jerk you are, you’re probably not winning any Mr. Congeniality awards.)
But Po, who is still alive and at the center of the film, and Storm, who died in 2013, were in it to make art, not friends (though the two of them, particularly Po, managed to do both). Hipgnosis came along at a time when musicians were ready to break away from the old rule that said an album cover should be a picture of the musicians with the band name is big letters; they no doubt accelerated that break when they did things like persuading Pink Floyd that the cover of their “Atom Heart Mother” album could simply be a picture of a cow, without even the band’s name.
Hipgnosis also came along at a time long before (relatively tiny) CDs and long before (all but art-free) streaming, when the album cover was considered a hugely important companion to the sounds that lay within. The documentary pays fealty to that connection: The stories are great but the music is omnipresent, and the dramatic way Corbijn shoots his interviews, all black-and-white and shadowy, is always subservient to the images that Hipgnosis created.
There might be too much about some album covers, not enough on others (what, no love for the text-only design on XTC’s “Go 2?”), but the biggest frustration is how abruptly it ends. The business changes, Hipgnosis is hurt by bad business decisions, Storm and Po have a falling out and the movie’s over; as the subtitle promises, it’s “the story of hipgnosis,” but the people involved are so interesting that we’d like a little more closure and context than we get.
Still, “Squaring the Circle” is a treat for anyone with a taste for rock, for rock imagery and for the glories that can be found in that piece of cardboard wrapped around a record. Anton Corbijn knows those glories well, so his movie’s got a good beat and a good look.