Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis (2022) dir. Anton Corbijn

Looking at records.


There is a moment early in the new rockumentary Squaring the Circle in which Oasis frontman Noel Gallagher muses on the notion that classic LPs represent “the poor man’s art collection.” There’s something to this notion: album artwork provided the latter half of the 20th century with some of its most indelible images, and the classic 12×12 record sleeve constitutes something of an objet d’art in its own right. This is doubly true for the work of Hipgnosis, the graphic design team responsible for some of the most indelible rock sleeves of the 1970s. Nearly a half century on, the works of Hipgnosis live on not only in record collections, but pinned up on the walls of dorm rooms and practice spaces of people who weren’t yet born when they were first devised. You may not know much about art, as the saying goes, but you probably know Hipgnosis– whether you’re aware of it or not.

Directed by music video auteur Anton Corbijn, Squaring the Circle takes an affable (if fairly conventional) look at the firm’s improbably influential career. Formed in the late 1960s by Cambridge UK flatmates Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, Hipgnosis gained a cache amongst the English rock elite with their unconventional mix of vivid photography, psychedelic collage, and deadpan humor. Best known for their lengthy collaboration with Pink Floyd (which spanned much of the band’s golden age, from 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets through 1977’s Animals), the team also designed iconic images for Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel, and a veritable who’s-who of classic rock royalty. But, like much of their clientele, Hipgnosis was a collaboration between larger-than-life personalities navigating a tempestuous cultural landscape, and as such could only persist for so long before an inevitable implosion.

Despite Corbijn’s typically striking photography, Squaring the Circle takes a mostly straightforward approach to its subjects, presenting the rise and fall of Hipgnosis chronologically via talking head interviews. Fortunately, it’s a pretty astounding assortment of heads. Thorgerson passed away in 2013, leaving Powell to serve as the film’s principle narrator and protagonist. This, perhaps, is as it should be; Storm comes off in anecdotes as the grand eccentric of the pair (Floyd drummer Nick Mason describes him as “A man who wouldn’t take ‘yes’ for an answer”), with Po his more self-aware Sancho Panza. Powell retells his story affably and with humility, coming off as a dedicated craftsman who happens to be blessed with a keen eye and a fiery sense of invention. His bonafides are burnished by a compact but very strong roster of clients: Gabriel, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, all three surviving members of Pink Floyd, even McCartney himself. The impression, as it so often is in rock ‘n’ roll mythology, is one of a number of staggeringly talented individuals who all found themselves in the right place and the right time and managed to make something that would last.

The value of a film like Squaring the Circle is in its ability to make you consider the story behind images so ubiquitous that they run the risk of being taken for granted. As a music obsessive and longtime record store clerk, I have spent hours– perhaps days– of my life looking at the works of Hipgnosis, but while I was aware of the group as a namedrop, and had an implicit sense of their aesthetic as a distinct dinosaur-rock milieu, it never occurred to me to consider them as a body of work on par with the music they housed. The film’s most fascinating passages are those in which Powell matter-of-factly walks us through the creation of some of his most iconic works: jigsawing together the hexagonal stones for the seamless collage of Houses of the Holy, or scratching the negatives of Peter Gabriel’s “Car Album” to make the water droplets pop against the hand-colored chrome. I had never considered the absurdist humor of the cover of Atom Heart Mother (“What does a cow have to do with Pink Floyd?” Powell recalls a puzzled label head demanding, not unreasonably), or the influence of 2001 on the peculiar cover of Presence. Sometimes, learning how the sausage is made really does bring out the flavors.

Of course, as with the ‘70s themselves, it does get to be a little much. As the group’s ambitions grow, the stories begin to drift into Spinal Tap absurdity; the shoot for 10cc’s Look Hear?, which involved flying to Hawaii and forcing a sheep to recline on a psychiatrist’s couch amidst the crashing waves, is well and truly beyond parody. Despite the assistance of photographer Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, who would go on to be a founding member of Throbbing Gristle and Coil*, the opulence of the Hipgnosis aesthetic couldn’t help but look a little bloated and square as the excesses of AOR gave way to the scrappy energy of punk rock. What’s more, the stately compositions that were Storm and Po’s stock in trade were made more or less obsolete as the kineticism of MTV became the go-to visual component of rock and pop (in an interesting bit of metatextuality, Corbijn tacitly acknowledges his own hand in this sea change by inserting footage he himself shot of Depeche Mode in the ‘80s). For some viewers, this sense of uncoolness will certainly still hold, and if you’re not sympathetic to the material there’s a chance that this will come off as yet another self-congratulatory baby boomer circle jerk. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at your dad’s record collection, this film may not be for you.

But here’s the thing: these guys won’t be around forever. There will come a time– within the decade, probably– when it will be impossible to shoot a documentary with members of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or a goddamn Beatle. Whether you’re a fan of the music or not, there was something undeniably magical in the air at that particular time and place, when a seemingly once-in-a-generation talent like Syd Barrett was only one of a host of equally creative and successful voices. These musicians would have flourished with or without their particular album covers, of course, but the visual style of Hipgnosis played an essential role in codifying the mystique of rock ‘n’ roll. Squaring the Circle may not be the most innovative documentary of the year, but it shines a light on an undertold story in music history, and it’s fortunate enough to be able to tell it in its subject’s own words. If nothing else, it will make you take another look as you flip through the used record bins– or, if you will, peruse the gallery.

* – I was unaware of Christopherson’s involvement in Hipgnosis until watching Squaring the Circle, and this revelation solved a mystery that has long puzzled me: how it came to be that the models on the cover of Force It by hard rock band UFO are industrial music pioneers Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti.

Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis
dir. Anton Corbijn
100 min.

Screens @ Brattle Theatre 7/21-7/23

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