I popped back to London for a day, from Cambridge on my way to Cannes, to make a must-do stop at the V & A Museum for their Pink Floyd exhibition, wonderfully titled Their Mortal Remains. It opened on Saturday, and will run until the end of October.
Let me start by saying that there are many things I do not know about Pink Floyd. But I know enough to know Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Richard Wright – and of course, Syd Barrett – are the stuff legends are made of: audacious, strong-willed, visionary musicians, who are responsible for some of the most impressive songs ever written. As a child of the 80s, and growing up in South Africa, I never had the chance to see them live, and only ever really knew of the band on records my parents owned.
So, going in, there was much I stood to learn from the exhibition – and Their Mortal Remains does them so much justice.
It outlines the band’s collective trajectory – with a section dedicated to founding frontman, the late Barrett, before mental illness caused him to leave the band. Each album is given careful consideration, with large sections for albums like The Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, The Wall and The Endless River. And all the while, song snippets and interviews play over the Sennheiser headphones you are given upon entering.
The beauty of this exhibition is relayed in the words of Storm Thorgerson, one of the graphic designers who was so important in the visual representation of the band, that’s written next to a blown up image still from the Learning to Fly music video.
“We often stage these things for real and don’t do them [on] a computer because the reality has its own attributes. What you see is what you get. If you were to do it as a drawing or an illustration, or on the computer, it would always remain a fantasy, not the real thing. And it’s really fun to do the real thing, let me tell you.”
Well, let me tell you how much fun it is to see the “things” that make up Pink Floyd “for real.” The poster for their first show at the UFO, the handwritten lyrics for Another Brick in The Wall, and hilarious rider notes calling for a key to lock away all their food and drink while they were performing – indeed all of these are fun to see. But even more so to stand in front of the animatronic puppets, based on Gerard Scarfe drawings, used in their massive stage shows and feel them tower above you. To see the original clipping from the newspaper about the day a pig flew over Battersea Power Station, down to Kent, scaring the cows on a farm there. Or beds stuck to the ceiling and walls, used to recreate the music video for The Endless River. Or a 3-D rendering of the famous Dark Side cover art. Or a life-size replica of The Division Bell cover, with the two faces, I’ve come to now learn, representing the absence of members Barrett and Waters, in a later-era of Pink.
All of this is superb, a real treat, to be sure, but actually, upon walking into the last room of the exhibition, I found my most jaw-dropping experience of the band in reality, so to speak. A multi-camera, multi-angle, guitar/drums/bass/voice enveloping, wall-to-wall rendition of my favourite song, and one of music history’s best guitar solos, Comfortably Numb, performed in all its glory.
I came away from this exhibition, not only with a greater sense of appreciation for the band itself, but for Thorgerson and Hipgnosis, the duo he formed with Aubrey Powell, that gave Pink, among so many things, their iconic Dark Side of the Moon cover. And I came away, more in love than ever, with the epic beauty of this thing called music.
It’s been almost ten years since Heath Ledger died, suddenly, at the age of 28 – of an overdose on painkillers and insomnia medication. The documentary I Am Heath Ledger aims to show us more of who he was before his death, behind the headlines and stories that followed in the wake of his death. It’s currently showing at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and features interviews with fellow Australian actors like Naomi Watts and Ben Mendelsohn.
Using footage that Ledger himself shot, the documentary builds a picture of a man who was vibrant and full of energy; who never wanted to waste a moment of the life he was given. It traces his move from Australia to the US, following a woman he’d met who invited him to stay with her in LA. Once the roles started coming in, he quickly became established as a Hollywood heart-throb. The documentary shows, as his movie choices did too, that Ledger wasn’t content to ride on his blonde hair, dimpled-smile looks, and sought out more challenging roles, of the Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain kind. The doc, through interviews with his family and close friends, looks to dispel the idea that playing the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight left him depressed and led to his overdose, while shooting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Ultimately though, at the end of the doc, we are not left with a rounded picture of Ledger and what led to his overdosing. He had his demons he was dealing with, but it feels as if the film skims over this, and chooses to focus on his vitality. But that doesn’t do him justice. What of his film Candy – about a drug addict? For someone who dove so deeply into the roles he played, did that have a detrimental impact him? I want to know. I want to know how someone who everyone around him said he was so “full of life” (according to Ben Harper, director Matt Amato, and all his friends) ends up dying suddenly, leaving behind a young daughter and a world robbed of his further artistic talents? Because maybe the reason might offer up some insight for others struggling with the demons Ledger himself faced. There is a hint that the desire to be great, and the fear of never living up to the impossible goals within his mind, is something that concerned him deeply. As it does many others.
Perhaps the filmmakers didn’t go into this issue deeper because those close to Ledger didn’t want to talk about it. But the Oscar-winning documentary Amy, which also used personal footage, allowed us to gain greater insight into the life of a star who’s flame, too, burned out bright. After watching Amy, I was still disheartened over the loss of her life, but I felt some kind of closure, a kindling of understanding. This doc, however, left me with even more questions. And sad all over again, that we lost one of our generation’s most vital actors.
Within the first few moments of One More Time with Feeling, I felt myself want to look at the friend who came with me to see it, and mouth the words “what’s happening?”, as we sat in the dark, watching Nick Cave uncomfortably follow direction from the filmmaker about re-doing a set-up shot and re-speaking words that were clearly difficult to get out in the first place, because they were working with fancy cameras no-one seemed entirely sure exactly how to use. It felt awkward because it was awkward – Cave was talking about his child’s death. Arthur, one of his twin sons, fell off a cliff in East Sussex in July 2015, after taking LSD for the first time.
The filmmaker – Andrew Dominik (who’s made noir-ish crime films like Killing Them Softly and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) clearly wanted the audience to go with the seemingly unvarnished start to the film – he is showing us he isn’t quite sure what was going to unfold, and neither are we, really. It represents something Cave says about the whole tragedy – that he hasn’t been able to distill it down into an easy-to-refer-to statement, a simple platitude, that he can pass on to others. “People say, ‘he lives in your heart,’ ” Cave says, in one interview scene. “Well, yes, he is in my heart,” he says. “But he doesn’t live.” It’s a moment so stark in truth it’s uncomfortable to hear.
In the same way, the documentary does not offer a simple trajectory about what happened, how it affected Cave and what we, as the audience and fans of his music, are meant to now know about the musician and his work. Through a series of black and white footage shot inside the studio and outside, in Brighton, and interviews with Cave in his home and in a cab, Dominik brings the different aspects of this time in Cave’s life, to us, to try experience how the work continued for him, as it had to. He literally works through this – both the literal sense of making the album and dealing with the grief and sadness of the ‘trauma,’ as Cave refers to it, in his journal-like entries and matter-of-fact answers to questions posed to him.
It’s haunting, sad, cathartic, beautiful, difficult, and ultimately a deeply moving way to experience Cave’s music. The music, the lyrics, wash over you in between the moments that Cave wanted to create as a way not to have to deal with questions from journalists while promoting the film. In the end, it’s a truly majestic accompaniment to the album. I urge you to seek it out – preferably with a great sound system so you can truly appreciate the music as it was created.