Synopsis: This documentary film – the first ever about Eno – explores his life, career and music between the years 1971 & 1977, the period that some view as his golden age. Featuring numerous exclusive interviews, contributions from a range of musicians, writers, collaborators and friends – plus performance and studio film and an abundance of the most exceptional music ever created.
eyelights: the thoroughness of the analysis of those years. the flurry of archival material.
eyesores: the limited number of participants.
“(His music is) an attempt at making commercial music by someone who has no interest in commercial rock music.”
Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with respect to Brian Eno. Although I’ve known about him for what seems like forever, and even picked up my first album of his perhaps twenty years ago, I never actually took the time to explore his discography, let alone his background. I mean, I knew that he was an important figure in the musical world (it was hard not to, seeing as his name shows up everywhere), but I’d never really considered to what extent and why.
That’s where ‘Brian Eno: 1971-1977 – The Man Who Fell to Earth’ comes into play.
I first stumbled onto it at my local library’s second hand bookshop, a place that survives on donations and where they sometimes unload their less popular acquisitions. I was surprised to find this item, which was only recently released. At first glance, it looked like one of those many unofficial documentaries, you know the kind, so I figured that this was the reason why was being tossed. Curious about its subject and spurred on by its 1$ price tag and lengthy runtime, I picked it up.
Released in 2012, this extensive full-length documentary on Brian Eno is an exploration of his artistic development and career trajectory during seven key years of his life. In that short time, he made his name with Roxy Music, released five solo albums, started a record label, produced more than ten albums, collaborated with numerous artists (including David Bowie, Robert Fripp, Nico and John Cale), and devised new technology and studio techniques.
And that doesn’t even take into account the touring, hospital stays and spells of writer’s block. To say that he was prolific is a gross understatement.
I could never encapsulate the icon’s life in this blurb (not that I even have a full grasp of it all in the first place), so I will refrain from discussing the details of this documentary. Anyway, having only heard some of his solo work, I struggled to keep up with all the reviews and commentary that the film has sandwiched into its already jam-packed 2h40m runtime. I had far too little perspective on the matter to understand what some of them were talking about, let alone form an opinion.
But it’s a through assessment of Eno’s early years: backed by interviews with a variety of critics, collaborators and friends (and even some short bits with Brian Eno himself, from 2006), we were treated to a solid analysis. And then there’s all the archival material (including live footage of Roxy Music, T-Rex, Yes, Jethro Tull, ELP, …etc.), and soundbites from all his albums (accompanied by gorgeous video footage that may very well have been culled specifically for the occasion).
Some of the highlights, for me, were:
- Hearing about his impact on Roxy Music, given that I’ve never explored them one bit. His flamboyance made him the center of attention, even though he was initially supposed to stay in the shadows, at the back of the stage.
- He published and adopted a limited edition set of 113 cards called Oblique Strategies to help the artistic process. They featured one idea per card, which they would randomly pull out of the deck when they were struck in the studio: it included “Accept advice”, “Repetition is a form of change”, “Humanize something free of error”, to name some.
- He has released a number of landmark recordings, including ‘Pussyfooting’, with Robert Fripp, “Third Uncle”, which predated punk and Talking Heads (and was covered by Bauhaus), and ‘Another Green World’, which is considered the genesis of ambient music.
- He came up with the concept of ambient music, the intention behind it being to create music that would remain in the background, that wouldn’t overwhelm a conversation at a dinner party. It was meant to be played at low volumes, to be undistracting.
- When he started his label, Obscure Records, to promote avant-garde albums, he ended up releasing ten of them in two years – all of which he produced. He released his ground-breaking ‘Discreet Music’ in that period, on that label.
In fact, ‘Discreet Music’ was the first Brian Eno album that I picked up. I had seen his name everywhere and decided to see what his solo work was like. I had no idea what I was getting into: ‘Discreet Music’ is, in fact, so discreet that I couldn’t figure it out – there was so little going on that it challenged my attention span. But I kept playing it over and over again, upping the volume to try to get something out of it. I never did. It was the last of my Eno experiences for many years.
But he did produce two massively under-appreciated albums that I, for one, am utterly enamoured with: Passengers’ ‘Original Soundtracks 1’ and David Bowie‘s ‘Outside’. And although he’s mostly involved with the production of pop records these days (most notably U2’s output of the last three decades), Eno was such a ground-breaking figure that his influence is felt even now. One of the critics in this picture accurately labels him “The Mad Professor of Rock”
I’m sure there are tons of odd bits missing, but ‘Brian Eno: 1971-1977 – The Man Who Fell to Earth’ is an in-depth documentary just the way that I like them: thorough, critical and backed by lots of archival material. Unfortunately, not being overly familiar with Eno, a lot of it was lost on me. But I’m sure that once I get around to listening to all of his music from that period, it will be worthwhile to revisit this. Very likely then will I appreciate it – even more than I do now.
Dates of viewings: August 23-4, 2014