Pink Floyd has been my favorite band for about as long as I can remember – probably before I really understood anything about music or the band itself. And yet, even as much as I love the band, I somehow never got around to seeing their famous “concert” film Pink Floyd at Pompeii, in which the band plays for an audience of none (well, they play for a film crew, technically) in the ruins of Pompeii. So, when the Belcourt theater offered a screening of a 35mm print, there was little way I could pass up the chance to see it.
Catching the band at a critical transition point – as they left behind the psychedelic noodling of their past and moved toward their golden age of Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and more – Pompeii is, more than anything else, a record of a fantastic performance. Set aside the 60’s art film touches, and just focus on the way the film captures the band in their prime, before ego and conflicting priorities tore them apart. And watching them glide effortlessly through the astonishing soundscapes of “Echoes,” or through the ominous tones of “Careful with that Axe, Eugene,” is a joy, a reminder of how great the band was when they fed off of each other and let everyone contribute. Take, for instance, Nick Mason’s drumming; even as a fan of the band, I’ve always focused more on the contributions of David Gilmour and Roger Waters, for obvious reasons. But it’s hard not to come away from Pompeii realizing just how important Mason’s work was to the band, grounding and cohering them as they experimented and played. (It doesn’t hurt that the film focuses on Mason to an almost distracting degree – for example, the entirety of “One of These Days” footage is of Mason, and no one else.)
And then, of course, there’s the location. Rather than feeling like a gimmick, the choice to set the concert in Pompeii fits the band’s music perfectly, emphasizing the surreal nature of their instrumentals and the unsettling tone they so often struck. And director Adrian Maben makes good use of Pompeii’s artwork, choosing perfect counterpoints to the music to background the band or underline the tones we’re enjoying. It all adds up to a pretty spectacular experience, particularly when you can take it all in on the big screen.
Meanwhile, the cut of the film the Belcourt screened also included the interviews and behind the scenes footage taken during the Dark Side of the Moon recordings. They’re generally interesting enough, I suppose, if a little staged; more than anything else, they just feel a little thrown in and tacked on, without much purpose or point. There are some pointed interview moments, including some questions about whether the band suffers from infighting – a question that can’t help but be laced with dramatic irony for modern audiences. They don’t hurt the film, really, but they don’t add much to it, either, and you can’t help but feel that you’d rather just spend that time watching the band perform.
Luckily, there’s plenty of that in Pompeii; as a fan, I walked away more than pleased. It’s not hard to see why the film has such a great reputation; it’s beautifully shot (setting aside those goofy art-film touches that feel like a student film-maker just playing around), and the music…what is there to say about it? It’s a blast of a film, and a thoroughly unique performance of a band at its peak. And when that band is Pink Floyd, that’s one hell of a peak.