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SUNDANCE 2023 Spotlight

Review: Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)


- Anton Corbijn’s documentary on the creative team behind some of the most iconic album covers of the 1970s and beyond is more conventional than its subjects

Review: Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)
Aubrey “Po” Powell in Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)

Making a documentary about artists whose work was fuelled by innate talent, drugs and sheer youthful energy, rather than carefully thought-out decisions or clearly laid-out principles, is always going to be a challenge. Trying to communicate the excitement that was first felt about their creations, when the latter are now so famous as to be ubiquitous, is another considerable hurdle. But it still seems a shame to see Anton Corbijn turn to talking-head interviews and archive footage for Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) [+see also:
film profile
, his Sundance Spotlight-screened documentary about the British creative team behind some of the most iconic record artworks of the 1970s. While relatively easy to put together, this format almost inevitably gives exciting and, at the time, entirely unpredictable developments a dull, nostalgic sheen, smoothing out the highs and lows that make any creative journey worth exploring.

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Helping matters considerably is the quality of the works discussed, and the best moments in the film are those when Aubrey “Po” Powell, the surviving member of the original Hipgnosis duo, explains in some detail how he and collaborator Storm Thorgerson came up with the ideas for some of their most striking artworks. One particularly interesting and fun sequence involves the design for Led Zeppelin’s House of the Holy, an example that illustrates very well the blend of outlandish ideas and practical thinking that allowed the two men to create so much original art, so quickly: Storm’s unstoppable artistic ambitions – he is described by every single person interviewed as “rude” – combined with Po’s more pragmatic-minded abilities, were able to create magic. But luck was a part of it all, too. The two men, who met by total happenstance, established their design company only after designing their first record cover for their friends Pink Floyd, and from there came more work.

Corbjin’s decision to shoot the interviews with friends, colleagues and artists – who include Paul McCartney, Peter Gabriel and members of Pink Floyd, but also Noel Gallagher as the voice of a younger generation of musicians for whom Hipgnosis were legends, as opposed to collaborators – in black and white is inspired, as on top of being flattering to his subjects, it also helps better blend their comments into the story being told. The director understands that the details are more interesting than the simple rise-and-fall arc of the design team’s history, and packs many fun anecdotes into a film of a perfectly reasonable length. The frankness of the main interview subject Powell, freely admitting that he really did want to make a lot of money while Storm, on the other hand, was more concerned about the vision and integrity of the company, is refreshing and cancels out much of the film’s romanticising of the 1970s (which, to be fair, really were a great time for music).

Perhaps more could have been made of the cultural dissonance the team eventually found itself in, but this is clearly a documentary made for fans of Hipgnosis, and the bands and artists they worked with, rather than a work of detailed historical analysis.

Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) was produced by the UK’s Raindog Films. Its international sales are handled by Rocket Science.

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