I first heard a cassette of Pink Floyd’s The Wall as a child in the 90s, long before I had developed any sense of personal taste in pop media. In that pre-Wikipedia world, I’m not sure I knew the album was a soundtrack for a feature film, but I do remember picturing live-action movie scenes in my mind as it played, if not only because tracks like “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” included snippets of spoken dialogue in the music. It wasn’t until I got to college in the aughts that the movie version of The Wall entered my life, but even at that time I imagined a wildly inaccurate version of it in my head instead of actually watching it. By then, I was full-blown music snob, drawn almost exclusively to the sharp, concise pop perversions of punk instead of the loose, noodly prog of bands like Pink Floyd. That’s likely why I didn’t participate in dorm room watch parties of The Wall, where dozens of my stoner classmates would cram into & cloud up a campus apartment to group-watch the film as if it were the psychedelic Rocky Horror Picture Show. I had a very specific assumption of what The Wall was like based on that dorm room ritual, which turned out to be even less accurate than my childhood imagination of the film. And since it’s one of many titles that have fallen through the distribution cracks in the modern streaming era, it wasn’t until I found a thrift-store DVD copy of my own that I finally cleared up my misconceptions.
I have a couple questions about those freshman-year burnouts: What were they smoking, and where can I get some? The Wall is visually playful & surreal enough to pass as stoner background fodder, but goddamn it’s grim. It’s hard to imagine a dozen teenage dirtbags sincerely grappling with the film’s post-WWII grief & resentments while passing around a plastic bong. They probably would’ve found a lot more “Whoa dude, far out!” entertainment value in the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” fan-edit of The Wizard of Oz . . . or just staring at an iTunes visualizer for a couple hours. Technically, The Wall does deliver enough sex, drugs, and rock n roll imagery to fire up the imaginations of college-age thrill seekers, but it’s all conveyed through the perspective of an emotionally hollowed, terminally jaded rock star who’s lost the will to live. This is less a psychedelic hedonist free-for-all then it is a cry for help, an outlet for Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters to lament his post-War childhood woes and his professional disappointments as an adult who barely survived the druggy haze of the 1970s. If it has a guiding thesis, it’s that the Brits are not okay. That S.O.S. message is only an extension of Waters’s own dwindling interest in life, love, and art, though, as pantomimed by fellow rock star Bob Geldof (of The Boomtown Rats) as his on-screen surrogate. Fun!
In modern pop media terms, The Wall is Pink Floyd’s “visual album,” predating recent experiments in that medium like Lemonade, Dirty Computer, or When I Get Home. It’s a feature-length music video, with little plot or spoken dialogue to distract from Waters’s lyrics. Frankly, the songs themselves are not especially great, an assessment even most Pink Floyd fans would agree with. They mostly just clear space for director Alan Parker (Angel Heart, Bugsy Malone, Evita) to play with the iconography of post-WWII Europe, as guided by Waters’s lyrics. The composite character “Pink” (Geldof) is a lifeless, strung-out rock star with no remaining passion for his art and no remaining lust for his groupies. He blankly stares at football & war movies on the TV, while reminiscing about a life where his father didn’t come home from the war, his mother was swallowed up by religion, the English school system wrung the life out of him, and everything else has been flavorless gruel in the decades since. All the emotional walls, sexual hang-ups, and cultural rot of modern British masculinity are on full, grotesque display, while Nazi fascism slowly creeps back in to regain lost ground in the country’s schools, politics, hearts, and minds. It’s all very loose & free-associative, but it paints a clear, deeply ugly picture of where Waters’s mind was at in the bitter afterglow of the 1970s.
If there’s any way in which The Wall delivers on the far-out, trippy, dorm room stoner experience that my knucklehead classmates were looking for, it’s in its tangents of psychedelic animation. Gerald Scarfe’s animated sequences play like an alternate version of Wizards designed by Ralph Steadman instead of Ralph Bakshi. Scarfe tinkers with the same post-War iconography as Parker, particularly in an early battlefield sequence when speeding war planes transform into flying crucifixes while decimating the land below. A lot of his imagery is much freer to follow its own momentary whimsies, though. A pair of flowers will have raunchy pistil-stamen sex, then transform into heroin needles & specters of death, then rearrange again to strings on a rubbery guitar neck. If the entire film were just Scarfe illustrations of the images evoked by Waters’s lyrics, The Wall would still be oppressively grim, but I’d at least better understand its reputation as the thinking man’s Yellow Submarine. As is, I mostly see an illustrated & pantomimed therapy session from a depressed loner who’s tired of the spotlight and bitter about his (admittedly shitty) childhood. It’s a solid film on those terms, but I’m not in a rush to gawk at its bleak splendor again over pizza & bong rips with my closest, goofiest friends.