Monday, April 23, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #190 - Pink Floyd - Live At Pompeii

     When first released in America in 1973, Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii was a moderate success, playing in art theatres, on campuses and at midnight movie showings. That was where I first saw it - at the Vogue Theatre on old South Pearl Street (now condos) at a midnight showing. Beginning with a heartbeat pulse in blackness, the scene finally opens with a camera shot above the ancient ruins of the amphitheater at Pompeii. The title wasn’t hyperbole or poetic nonsense -this was actually psychedelic, art-rock rock band Pink Floyd playing in the audience-free remains of a 6th Century Italian ruin – an absolutely mind-blowing conceit from the word go. The ruins themselves make for the most cosmic of backdrops, yet director Adrian Maben goes further, filming Pompeii’s famous active volcano spewing lava and boiling mud, and having the members of Pink Floyd stroll through this alien landscape. Maben also includes shots of the world-class statues, tiles and frescos (some highly erotic) found in the ruins of Pompeii. These elements, along with some additional footage of the band playing in a French studio are masterfully woven together to encapsulate everything that Pink Floyd was at this time; inventive, powerful, ambitious, and uniquely standing on the precipice of world superstardom. Yes, remember, this was before their groundbreaking Dark Side Of The Moon album. In fact, in some ways, the overwhelming success of that album blunted some of the movie’s impact on public consciousness. The director’s cut of the movie includes extended scenes of the band working on Dark Side in the studio, which, while fascinating, change the vibe of the film.
For me, it is the original hour-long version of the film that I go back to over and over. It is an important milestone in my personal understanding of why, ultimately, rock music matters. To see one of my favorite bands, and one that has stood the test of time, in this context, shoulder to shoulder with the great artifacts of Western art and culture was both humbling and thrilling. Musically, Pink Floyd play some of their most adventurous music with authority and improvisational abandon. Numbers like “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” and “Careful With That Axe Eugene” are the perfect combination of musical convention and cutting-edge, avant experimentation to match the timeless setting. The scene during the song “A Saucerful Of Secrets” where Roger Waters stands in front of and strikes giant gong as the sun sets behind him in the ruins of an ancient stadium while guitarist Dave Gilmour sits barefoot and shirtless in the ancient dirt of Pompeii drawing the most extraordinary sounds out of his instrument are about as memorable and historically impactful as any scene in any music movie.
The musical heart of Pink Floyd Live At Pompeii are the three numbers drawn from their 1971 masterpiece Meddle. The film is bookended with their side long epic “Echoes” which pretty much defines forward-thinking ambition in modern music at this point in history. Again, the historical surroundings meld perfectly with Floyd’s intense, throbbing composition. “One Of These Days” finds the production team down to one working camera, thus the shots revolve around drummer Nick Mason, providing a dizzying swirl of movement that beautifully illustrates the excitement of the song.
I definitely recommend watching the entire director’s cut of this film, because it offers such a rare glimpse into the studio magic (and sometimes tedium) that goes into making a classic album, but, ultimately, it is the actual footage of Pink Floyd playing in the ruins of Pompeii that provides the life-altering experience in this movie. I’ve never gotten over it. To this day, every time I hear that heartbeat opening I am transported back to the body of a 16 year-old sitting in a darkened theatre about to be shown that popular music could be about something deeper than “ooh baby I love you.”

-         Paul Epstein

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