The rock and roll film genre has a checkered history. Since 1955’s Rock Around the Clock, it has been peppered with vacuous entertainment designed to do little more than separate young audiences from their money. That began to change in the 1970s. It was the first decade in which filmmakers and rock bands were of the same generation. Rock and roll movies became bolder. It also became more meaningful. Rock musicals and concert films helped The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Band, David Bowie, and the Rolling Stones transcend their chosen artistic medium. Allowing them to explore new avenues of creativity onscreen.
One band that seemed destined for the big screen was Pink Floyd. Since its earliest days as a fixture in the psychedelic rock scene of 1960s London, Floyd’s live shows featured elaborate visual components. The size and scope of their performances grew along with the band’s popularity. Elaborate light shows and props, projected images, and short films. These were all part of the live Pink Floyd experience.
Building the Wall
Pink Floyd had a unique mixture of darkly philosophical lyrics, technically proficient musical arrangements, and bold sound and visual experimentation. This set them apart from other rock acts of the time. They achieved superstar status with the release of Dark Side of the Moon in 1973. The success afforded them the luxury of experimenting with new musical concepts. However, the pressure of that success began to take its toll.
Bassist and lyricist Roger Waters was the most potent creative force in the band. As a result, he would often push his own ideas on his bandmates. Further, he felt that Pink Floyd’s success had become an impediment to artistically connecting with the public. He was also disillusioned with the carnival atmosphere that accompanied the band’s live performances. His disgust with the rowdy rock and rollers in the audience boiled over at a 1977 Montreal concert when he spat on a disruptive fan in the front row.
Waters put his feelings on paper, writing lyrics and music for a semi-autobiographical rock opera that explored alienation, abandonment, and the dark trappings of success. The Wall told the story of Pink, from his fatherless childhood to his adulthood as a burned-out rock star whose isolation and loneliness drove him insane.
Waters envisioned The Wall as a three-part multimedia experience. First, there was a double album with 26 songs. This was more individual tracks than on all the Pink Floyd albums released in the previous seven years. Live shows would follow, but not like a traditional concert tour. The Wall in concert would consist of elaborate staging, props, and musical cues. All of this took place while stagehands built a physical wall that would separate the audience from the band. Then, a subsequent film would follow.
No one was sure what shape the film would take in those early days. The first step was recording the album. This turned out to be an expensive project that took most of 1979 to achieve. Waters seized complete creative control, insistent on realizing his uncompromising vision for the piece. Relations with his bandmates, who felt more like hired hands than collaborators, were frayed beyond repair.
From Album to Film
The album The Wall became an instant best-seller when it was released on November 30, 1979. The tour was also a smash, with sold-out shows throughout its run. The carefully crafted theatrical extravaganza was the most elaborate Pink Floyd had ever done. It was also the most ambitious rock concert tour anyone had yet seen.
Throughout the production of the album and the subsequent tour, Waters had an eye on making The Wall into a feature film. He partnered with renowned illustrator and animator Gerald Scarfe, who designed the album artwork and live shows, to create an iconic look for the movie. Scarfe’s startling imagery evoked a psychological horror that brought the story’s themes to vivid life.
Waters’ script retained the narrative of the album. However, it also relied on live concert footage using the band as an onscreen guide through the chaos. Scarfe’s animation and stage props, including a 30-foot puppet of a schoolmaster, also figured into the script.
In early 1981, Waters and Scarfe presented a package that included a script draft and several production paintings to the executives at EMI, Pink Floyd’s music label since 1967. The hope was to get the media conglomerate’s film division to make the picture. Yet, no one understood it. Subsequently, EMI passed on the project, unmoved by the gobs of money that Floyd had made for them over the years.
It was around this time that director Alan Parker met Waters through a mutual acquaintance at EMI. Parker, besides being the acclaimed director of Midnight Express (1978) and Fame (1980), was a longtime Pink Floyd fan. He was also intrigued by the idea of a film of The Wall. Waters asked him to direct it but Parker was committed to another project. He was slated to direct a family drama called Shoot the Moon (1982) but offered his professional input. He also suggested that his cinematographer Michael Seresin co-direct with Scarfe.
Pink Floyd launched a series of five live Wall shows in London in June 1981 expressly to gather footage for the upcoming film. The shows were a hit, but the filming was a disaster. Mismatched camera speeds, inadequate lighting, and poor framing of shots made the footage unusable. Seresin butted heads with Waters and Scarfe repeatedly and left the project. Parker, no longer content to manage things from the sidelines, stepped in as director.
An Alan Parker Film
Parker’s entry into the project forced some key decisions about the direction of the movie. After the fiasco with filming the London shows, it was evident that a concert film or a film that relied heavily on concert footage was not going to work. Parker surmised that mixing live stage footage and narrative film would be too visually jarring for movie audiences. Likewise, the stage theatrics of the live shows, while ingenious in their element, did not effectively translate to the screen. The film had to stand on its own merits if it was going to be any good.
Parker worked closely with Waters and Scarfe to develop the screenplay. Additionally, they also went through each lyric of each song, each image, and each drawing. The result was that the 50-page final document created from this painstaking work read more like a catalog of images rather than a conventional shooting script.
Finding a studio to back the project proved a monumental task. Parker’s successful track record as a director and Pink Floyd’s reputation as one of rock’s biggest acts didn’t sway executives. In pitch meetings, eyes would glaze over when Parker pitched Pink Floyd: The Wall as a non-linear narrative film driven by music with minimal dialogue and unconventional animation. MGM, which found success with Parker’s Fame the previous year, finally agreed to make the movie.
The film needed a lead actor. Waters originally planned on playing Pink, but screen tests revealed that he had no business acting in front of a camera. Parker, who decided that Pink Floyd should not appear anywhere in the film, set his sights on Bob Geldof. At the time he was the lead singer of the Irish new wave band The Boomtown Rats.
Geldof, like many musicians and fans of the new wave, had little respect for progressive rock bands like Pink Floyd. He viewed Floyd as overblown. Further, his opinion of The Wall was less than kind, referring to Waters’ lyrics as “social-conscience-stricken-millionaire leftism.” However, the money was good, and Geldof’s manager felt his career could use the boost.
A cast, budget, and a loose shooting script were now in place. All that was needed was to wrangle egos. Waters had been completely absorbed in The Wall for three years. He had a tremendous stake in seeing the film succeed. Resultingly, he was reluctant to leave it in the hands of Parker’s production team. Scarfe, likewise invested, was also prickly about changing his design concepts to fit Parker’s vision for the film.
Eventually, Parker was able to neutralize Waters by suggesting he take an extended holiday when principal photography began on September 7, 1981. Scarfe also went away to work on the film’s complex animated sequences with his staff in his London studio.
Run Like Hell
The production moved at a fast pace. This was so Pink Floyd: The Wall could be shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1982. Over the course of 60 straight 14-hour days, Parker and company completed nearly a thousand separate shots captured on 350,000 feet of film.
The scope of the picture was truly epic. It wound back and forth through Pink’s life as his sanity slowly came apart in a Los Angeles hotel room. War scenes depict the death of his father when Pink is an infant. This mirrored the death of Waters’ father who was killed at Anzio in World War II. Pink’s unsettling childhood in England, his rise to rock and roll stardom, and the dissolution of his marriage. All of this plays out in live-action that is seamlessly blended with Scarfe’s phantasmagorical animation.
Despite his early reservations, Geldof was game for anything once the film shoot started. He couldn’t swim but spent hours in a pool to capture several shots of the lonely Pink floating in aquatic isolation. He suffered a major gash on his hand filming Pink trashing his hotel room in fantastic rock-star glory. Also, he coughed and choked in front of the smoke machines and sweated profusely under harsh lights. However, when he was encased in a pink, gooey body cast during the ‘Comfortably Numb’ sequence, Geldof cried “I will not be physically abused.”
For Parker, the toughest part of the shoot was the scenes featuring the rock-concert-turned-fascist rally that comes after Pink goes completely insane. Real London skinheads were recruited as Pink’s Hammer Guard, and their appearance put other extras and crew on edge. Parker and choreographer Gillian Gregory appealed to the rough boys’ attraction to order and discipline to keep them in line during filming. They also had to be carefully schooled in the art of cinema violence so that they didn’t get carried away with their scenes.
Shooting wrapped in early November, and Parker immediately set about assembling the massive amount of footage into a coherent final product. Waters, back from his voluntary exile, freely offered his thoughts in the edit bay. Vicious arguments ensued between creator and director. Parker had assumed control over the film during production, but the sticky reality of the situation was that it was Waters’ vision that drove the project. The two men found a way to make it work.
Editing the soundtrack also proved a major task, and album engineer James Guthrie oversaw the effort. It was more complicated than just taking the album and marrying it to the film. Music had to be re-engineered and remixed from the original master recordings. Orchestral arrangements were added to many songs. Two songs from the record—“Hey You” and “The Show Must Go On”—were dropped from the film, and one song cut from the album—“What Shall We Do Now”—found its way onto the soundtrack. “When the Tigers Broke Free” was written and performed specifically for the movie.
After eight excruciating months of post-production on Pink Floyd: The Wall, 60 hours of raw footage was edited down to a 99-minute film. There were 5,400 cuts, and 15 minutes of animation sourced from 10,000 full-color paintings.
Parker took Pink Floyd The Wall to Cannes on a schedule where it screened out of competition. Steven Spielberg, in attendance with Warner Bros. studio executive Terry Semel, was rumored to have said at the end of the screening, “What the fuck was that?”
Reception and Resonance
Spielberg’s sentiment was echoed by many critics after Pink Floyd: The Wall received its world premiere at London’s Leicester Square on July 14, 1982. It was labeled as self-indulgent, heavy-handed, muddled, profane, and loud. These slings and arrows might be the death knell for many films. But for a rock and roll movie featuring the music of Pink Floyd, they meant mission accomplished.
Pink Floyd: The Wall was a box office hit in every theater that screened it. Playing in only 600 U.S. theaters, it still managed to reach number three at the box office in the summer of ’82 behind An Officer and a Gentleman and the biggest film of that year, Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Parker’s film became a top video rental when it was released on VHS in 1983 and was one of the best-selling videotapes of the year when it was re-released in 1988. It has enjoyed respectable sales in every home entertainment format that has come since, including laserdisc and DVD.
Pink Floyd the band did not survive the smashing success of the album and the film. Creative arguments melted into bitter legal battles, and Roger Waters left the band in 1985. Guitarist David Gilmour and percussionist Nick Mason continued on as Pink Floyd and enjoyed multi-platinum success in the 80s and 90s. Waters continued to record new music and has returned to The Wall several times over the years, producing massive stage shows that draw tens of thousands of fans.
Alan Parker, though proud of the final product, recalls the experience of making Pink Floyd: The Wall as being the most miserable period of his life. Geldof and members of the crew have similar recollections. Roger Waters, who has mellowed over the years, has praised the work of Parker, Geldof, and the technicians who brought his vision to life on screen. However, in a 1987 interview with Music Connection magazine, the man behind The Wall was remarkably candid about his view of the final film:
“Who gives a shit? I wasn’t interested in this Pink character; I didn’t feel any empathy for him at all…And if I go to the cinema and I don’t care for any of the characters, it’s a bad film.”
Many film and music fans disagree. Pink Floyd: The Wall has only grown bigger with time. Emerging at the dawn of the MTV era, it was the ultimate music video. It inspired other musicians to embrace film as a medium, though no one ever came close to its scope and originality. If Pink Floyd: The Wall deserves any criticism, it is that it is guilty of using pre-determined visual stimuli to rob listeners of the chance to put their own imaginations to work while listening to the music.
This hasn’t detracted from the film’s continued resonance, though. Pink Floyd: The Wall is one of those rare films that enjoy repeated viewings among its fans, and it still pops up on theater screens in surprising places, selling out to midnight crowds eager for a taste of rock and roll nostalgia. Forty years later, Pink Floyd: The Wall still delivers.
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