Critically assailed and praised in about equal measure, Pink Floyd The Wall is also monumentally exhilarating and depressing in about equal measure — and I'm fairly sure that's the idea. Director Alan Parker (of Fame, Midnight Express, Angel Heart and Mississippi Burning), along with Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and animator/illustrator Gerald Scarfe, produced this filmed adaptation of Pink Floyd's epic and massively successful two-disc album only to discover that they were both far ahead of their time and in way over their heads. But they also made no apologies for its excesses, and unlike a lot of other band-related movie projects it wasn't designed as a cheap publicity stunt to capitalize on the success of the artists.
Up until the mid-Seventies, musicals on film had been limited to adaptations of Broadway productions — The Sound of Music, Sweet Charity, My Fair Lady. When the idea of the rock concept album or rock opera started to come more into vogue, an idea more or less pioneered by The Who with Tommy, the idea of transposing a themed rock album to film took hold — and in fact, that did happen with Tommy, courtesy of director Ken Russell, in 1975. Many people found it goofy, and there is a lot of inherent camp value in watching Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret have no more than two notes of range between them, but it was directed, photographed and performed with great gusto.
Pink Floyd The Wall could not be more of a polar opposite to Tommy. In place of camp humor and goony pseudo-profundity, we have what Parker called a primal scream of personal pain — an abstruse, strongly surreal and highly internalized story of a burned-out rock star suffocating under the weight of his personal demons. The movie follows the album's own progression almost exactly, slipping back and forth through time, intermixing real life, fantasy, hallucination and dream until they are deliberately indistinguishable from each other. The only other film I've seen that depicts psychic collapse as successfully is the equally bleak Pi.
In another strong break from filmed-musical tradition, the plot is not explained to us through intercalary dialogue or even drama; it's told almost entirely in images and song. The album didn't tell us the story so much as show it to us through music and lyrics, and the movie follows the same rules: there are maybe two lines of direct dialogue spoken in the entire film. Today, this would not be nearly as difficult to swallow, but in 1982, it was box office rat poison.
In the abstract, the film's plot is not that complicated. Rock star Pink (Bob Geldof) sits inert in front of the TV in his Los Angeles hotel room, the night before a concert. The WWII movie on the tube brings back memories of his father ("When the Tigers Broke Free, pt. 1"), a British soldier who was killed in his bunker at Anzio. The horrible memories stir up immense turmoil ("The Thin Ice"), and Pink comes close to drowning himself in his hotel's swimming pool. (This almost happened for real, since Geldof could not swim and had to be supported in the water using a hidden flotation device.)
Little Pink grows up under the wing of his overly protective mother ("Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 1"), with no father in his life and no one to fill that role — to bring that point home, Parker gives us a scene in a public park where little Pink tries futilely to "enlist" someone else's father as his own for games, and then another scene ("When the Tigers Broke Free, pt. 2") where little Pink dresses up in his father's Army outfit and cap, and admires himself in the mirror. He will once again don a uniform much later in the movie; flashes of that are shown during an opening "concert" ("In the Flesh?") where Pink appears as a jack-booted dictatorial figure over his legions of fans.
Images of the war sending millions of able-bodied men to their deaths inspire the first of several of Gerald Scarfe's astounding animated sequences ("Goodbye Blue Sky"): a monstrous bird of prey flies over England, tearing away the soil like a chunk of flesh, and a squadron of airplanes transform into a cemetery. (In one of the movie's many relentlessly cynical touches, the blood running down from a giant cross is shown trickling into a sewer.) In public school, he has ugly visions of the children being turned into faceless zombies or ground meat ("Another Brick in the Wall pt. 2") and imagines violent rebellions that turn the school into rubble.
The adult Pink's relationships with women is a mess as well ("Mother"). His wife had left him for another man when he burned out; he tries to call her from America and is snubbed ("What Shall We Do Now?"). When a groupie works her way backstage into his suite ("One Of My Turns"), he snaps and destroys the room, sinking into ugly fantasies about his ex-wife and seeing tormenting images of himself as a boy looking forever for his father. (In a savage twist on the notion of the child being the father to the man, he enters an asylum and encounters the adult version of himself.)
Then comes the part of the movie that confuses a great many people: Instead of rejecting his tormentors, he turns to emulate them by creating a fascist organization — adopting a uniform and a code of conduct and a level of cruelty towards anything that isn't "him," like the schoolmasters he despised and the soldier he longed to see again ("Run Like Hell", "Waiting for the Worms"). But that does not sustain him, either, and the movie's finale ("The Trial"), an animated fantasia of self-recrimination and guilt, leaves objective reality completely behind.
There are many places where the movie is deliberately confusing, and not always to the best effect. When Pink shaves off his eyebrows and slicks back his hair to further dehumanize himself, that's real, but the skinhead fantasies that follow may not be — and probably aren't, come to think of it The movie is not about what's real and what's not; it's more an attempt to show us a state of mind, which does not always work logically or have proper beginnings and endings. Because of that, there is a great deal about the movie which feels shapeless; the long middle section of the film is particularly self-indulgent and difficult to sit through.
The film's misogyny is also troubling. I don't doubt that it's in character, and part and parcel of the movie's method, but the way it's presented is not going to sit well with some people. At one point, Pink's wife transforms into a hideous monster that devours him whole; at another, there's a moment of overt sexual symbolism involving two flowers that make love and then tear each other to shreds that's probably the most appalling moment in the whole film. Ostensibly, Pink feels betrayed when his wife leaves him for a CND organizer (who's presented as blander but more personally appealing than the tortured rock star), but Parker also gives us a scene where Pink's wife attempts to seduce him, only to have him reject her for a football match on TV. Clearly, it's his fault, but since the vast majority of the movie is Pink's point of view, he doesn't see it that way.
Another problem is the film's psychological acuity — since the whole movie takes place essentially inside Pink's head, it's vital that there be real insight. But because Pink is always closed-off and withdrawn (he has only a vanishing few moments of real humanity), he's less of a developed persona than a motif or a symbolic figure, like a character in a passion play. Then again, maybe that is the idea, and the fact that we are stuck inside his head with him is deliberate. His fascist fantasizing, through, is set up nicely to link back into his damaged persona: what he can't have, he won't let anyone else have, either, and where his father fought against fascism, he will now resurrect it.
What really redeems the movie is not the rather abstruse philosophy but two things: the visuals and the music. People who are already familiar with The Wall will be happy to learn that several songs originally created for the album but not included due to running time are in the movie (although one song, "Hey You", is in the album but was dropped from the film for pacing). The visuals are inspired simply beyond the level of a long-form music video — although that's not a bad thing, either — and push it into the realm of a truly experimental movie in many ways.
Several of the songs are depicted entirely through animation and introduce visual themes that the movie returns to obsessively: the hammers, the dying soldier on the battlefield, the aforementioned rape flowers, the wall itself that separates Pink from the rest of humanity. The animation is writhing, ugly, a far cry from the polished animation inserts of other musicals (think of the Don Bluth blandness of the animation segments in Xanadu). And then there are the endless individual images that are unforgettable, as when Pink is hauled out to his waiting limo and imagines himself turning into a rotting corpse.
The Wall had a troubled production history. Parker quit and rejoined the production several times over many issues, not the least of which was the ultimate tone and tenor of the film. Waters was annoyed with the way Parker was turning the movie into a cult item; he wanted something that would appeal to the same masses of people who had bought the album, something that may not have been possible. He might also have been miffed that he didn't get to play himself — after a poor screen test, they cast Bob Geldof, lead singer for the Boomtown Rats, who had had no former acting experience either. Parker's most acerbic comment on the whole experience was probably the most telling: "It was the most expensive student film ever made."
Aside from running up a monumental budget — all of which is visible on screen; there are riots, concerts, rallies, marches, war scenes, and all manner of things blown up — the film performed poorly at the box office (for perspective, the top film of the year was E.T.). Critics either slammed the movie or shook their heads in complete confusion over it, and it disappeared after grossing less money than Blade Runner, another visually striking movie that was too far ahead of its time. But both Blade Runner and The Wall became enormous cult favorites on home video, and after Sony bought out Columbia Pictures they acquired the rights to the film as well (from MGM) and reissued it.
Alan Parker has made a great many other movies since, many of them good and some of them outstanding, and more than a few with the same smoldering anti-authoritarianism as The Wall. He re-visited musical territory as well, with The Commitments and his version of Evita. "I was once described by one of my critics as an aesthetic fascist," he remarked at one point — but for the man who helped build The Wall, a comment like that seems eerily fitting.