The early scenes of the documentary look like some lost reel from “This Is Spinal Tap,” spanning what seems like half of rock history -- complete with hem lengths and haircuts.
But the protagonist is not a metalhead but a Zelig-like figure: Here he is as a squeaky-clean pop idol in the Frankie Avalon mode, gazing bashfully. He shows up on L.A.'s Sunset Strip at its wildest. Next he’s part of a mop-topped boy band in swinging London. Then he’s an artsy songwriter brooding behind scarves and cool shades. Finally, he’s a baritone singer who combines depression with extravagant theatricality -- a sort of Leonard Cohen gone Vegas.
Just who is this guy? For the uninitiated, he’s Scott Walker -- born Noel Scott Engel in small-town Ohio. And now, at 66, he continues to be the reclusive hero to Brit rockers, hipster intellectuals, Mojo magazine readers and swooning sexagenarian German women. But he remains a mystery to nearly all.
Even David Bowie, a longtime fan, feigns bafflement during his on-screen appearance in “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man,” a documentary opening Friday at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles. “Why, I don’t know anything,” he offers with a sly smile. “Who knows anything about Scott Walker?”
Bowie, the film’s executive producer, is not the only well-known musician deeply influenced by this icon of obscurity. (Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy of albums from the late ‘70s clearly bears Walker’s stamp.) Johnny Marr of the Smiths, Sting, polymath Brian Eno, Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, trip-hop singer Dot Allison and Radiohead’s Jonny and Colin Greenwood all show up on camera; Bono and X’s John Doe also are reportedly fans. (Melancholy rocker Nick Cave, who doesn’t appear in the film, also seems to be especially influenced by Walker’s work.)
Experimental musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson, who works in the place where rock, classical and experimental music come together, calls herself “inspired by his sense of danger.”
She still remembers the first time she heard Walker’s music. “My immediate reaction was complete attention -- which pretty much describes listening to him since then.” His signature, she said, is “a roaring big voice with ragged edges full of sharp things.”
Most of Walker’s influence came in after he left British sensations the Walker Brothers -- a trio who were not actually British, not really brothers and not named Walker -- and launched a solo career.
The film tries to make the point that he was “at once out of step with current trends and light years ahead of them,” as the film’s notes have it.
“Their success as a band was up there on a Beatles level for a couple of years, and then it drifted away,” said Chris Walter, a photographer who shot the trio and then the solo artist in his native England in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “Scott was always the private one; you never ‘hung out’ with Scott. He was this enigmatic figure.”
Walker’s solo years are about as far from the hugely, if temporarily, popular trio as could be: Walker was inspired at that point not by the bright melodies of ‘60s pop or the swirl of psychedelia but rather by Samuel Beckett, Belgian crooner Jacques Brel and the films of Ingmar Bergman.
His song about Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” from the 1969 record “Scott 4,” failed to chart anywhere in the known universe. But that poor-selling solo album -- Walker’s first commercial flop -- became a major touchstone for many contemporary musicians.
Jarvis Cocker, the Brit-popper who once led Pulp, remembers how hard the solo records were to find in the 1980s. “It took me four or five years to track them all down,” he recalls. As for “Scott 4": “It just completely blew me away. He had massive orchestral arrangements, but with lyrics about people stuck in front of the telly, with their kids getting on their nerves. I’d always liked things that mythologized everyday life, but this was the first time I’d heard it in pop music.”
Walker, of course, never sold much in the United States, and he’s spent much of the last 40 years as a recluse in England studying things like Gregorian chant. He rarely grants interviews and did not break that rule to publicize this film.
“Each wave of his career scoops up new fans,” said Stephen Kijak, the film’s director and producer, describing Norwegian death metal bands who love Walker’s sepulchral recent work and Arctic Monkeys singer Alex Turner, whose side band is inspired by Walker.
David Sefton, an associate producer of the film, spent seven years chasing the singer to curate the music festival he ran in London. “It became almost like a running gag,” recalls Sefton, now director of UCLA Live, who sees Walker as the ultimate musician’s musician.
Many of the years since the late ‘70s -- the last time Walker performed live -- have been marked by alcoholism and depression. The film skirts this, mostly, leaving those years an enigmatic silence. “I wanted people to get to know him through the work,” said Kijak, who added that he did not want to alienate his subject.
The film presents him instead as Orpheus, the mythical Greek poet who descended into the underworld and returned to tell the tale. Walker becomes a kind of symbol of artistic discipline, of ignoring the marketplace. He even manages to seem otherworldly while speaking on camera in a black T-shirt in recent interviews.
Beastie bowled over
Adam Yauch says he and his fellow Beastie Boys somehow missed Walker in their earlier years: “It just slipped past my radar somehow.” But when he saw the film -- which his boutique company, Oscilloscope Pictures, is now distributing -- he was overpowered by the music’s strangeness, and by Walker’s fierce integrity.
“It’s a trip. The dude is an extremist,” Yauch said. “The part that killed me was when he signed a deal and goes off, lives in an old cabin without electricity, for like seven years. Then he calls his A&R man and says, ‘OK, I’m ready to record.’
“He symbolizes the extremes of sticking by your guns,” Yauch says.