OAK CLIFF FILM FESTIVAL 2023 REVIEW! It looks like there are hidden fires still burning deep within the documentary format with the pop culture megalith Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis), directed by Anton Corbjin and written by Trish D Chetty. Hipgnosis was an art design studio in England founded in the 1960s by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell. The studio would go on to design the most iconoclastic album covers in rock history. Of course, it helped that the founders were already pals with Pink Floyd before they set up shop. Amazing album covers for Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and Paul McCartney’s group Wings were created at Hipgnosis.
But when the studio designed the legendary triangle prism cover for Dark Side of the Moon, the universe went nuts. Soon Hipgnosis was the most sought-after and most expensive album art designer on the planet. Thorgerson and Powell would bring in Peter Christopherson, who brought a dark sensibility to the company. Thorgerson’s concepts become more elaborate and expensive, with lots of butting heads between him and Powell over creative decisions.
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) is not about musicians or a band. For a rock documentary, that may seem confounding. However, since Hipgnosis is responsible for nearly all the most important classic rock hieroglyphics in pop culture, rock must play a part here. But this is really a film about the creation of art. Led Zeppelin’s falling angel with no dick. The Pink Floyd cow from Atom Heart Mother. Peter Gabriel’s melty face shocking that monkey. Black Sabbath’s Technical Ecstasy (my favorite). Hipgnosis was behind all of these. Their images helped sell the sounds that would define a generation.
“…design the most iconoclastic album covers in rock history.”
It goes without saying that surviving member Powell has some amazing tidbits of rock history to drop. This alone makes this a crucial watch. However, the film’s value skyrockets due to all the rock gods who show up for interviews. You usually can’t get Pink Floyd together to talk about Pink Floyd. But Corbjin gets them together to wax rhapsodic about Hipgnosis. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page speak at length about the incredible monolith cover for Presence. McCartney is an absolute joy, while Gabriel is a lot warmer than I expected. For some reason, Noel Gallagher of Oasis is also interviewed, despite Hipgnosis never doing an album cover for them.
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) is a grand rock and roll buffet with something for everybody. There’s a hilarious bit about how some of the most expensive location shoots could have easily been done cheaper or in the studio. Another involves a small ornate statue that Paul McCartney wanted flown to the top of Mount Everest. The final shot for the cover, involving a helicopter and six hours at the mountain’s peak, could have been done indoors with a blue backdrop and a pile of salt. These financial follies highlight the purity of Thorgerson’s artistry in his visions. It almost seems like he made album art the same way Herzog makes movies: the creation of the image is as important as the images created. Even if the viewer doesn’t know the sheep on the couch by the tide is in Hawaii or is on valium, those details are still integral components of the art of Hipgnosis.
Corbjin and Chetty have revitalized my excitement for documentaries, as I thought I had seen everything the form offers. Yes, punk rears its spiked head in a highly satisfying fashion for those of us still out there. Of course, it helps that Christopherson would later play with Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and Coil. Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) will smash into your sonic horizon like a mile-high jukebox.
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) screened at the 2023 Oak Cliff Film Festival.
"…will smash into your sonic horizon like a mile-high jukebox."