Anton Corbijn, the prolific Dutch music video director for bands like U2, Depeche Mode, Echo & the Bunnymen, and a dozen others (not to mention the director of the stylish thrillers The American and A Most Wanted Man) is an ideal documentarian to tell the story of the design firm Hipgnosis, the creative team who all but invented the concept of the album cover as an art form. The "firm" was started by two eccentric Soho denizens who parleyed their burgeoning artistic talents and friendships with future rock icons into a legendary photography studio and graphics design business. The late Storm Thorgerson was a volatile visionary who grew up a schoolmate of Pink Floyd founders Syd Barrett and Roger Waters. His more disciplined partner Aubrey “Po” Powell, who met Storm when both men were in their early twenties and became the outfit's principal photographer, tells their story in this film.
In addition to the covers for the Pink Floyd albums A Saucerful of Secrets, Atom Heart Mother, Ummagumma, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Dark Side of the Moon (one of the most recognizable album covers of all time), Hipgnosis created covers, posters, and key art for Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, 10cc, The Alan Parsons Project, Bad Company, YES, Scorpions, Styx, Black Sabbath, Electric Light Orchestra, Peter Gabriel, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and countless other classic rock acts.
Po's first-person account is filled in and enhanced by interviews with rock legends like Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd; Robert Plant and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin; Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney. Noel Gallagher of Oasis is perhaps the most entertaining commentator. He never worked with Storm and Po, he claims he could never have afforded them, but he provides the sharpest observations about why they were important. His observation that record album covers were the art collections of the working class, coupled with his lament that the current youth generation doesn't even understand the concept of "cover art" give Squaring the Circle a bit of contemporary perspective.
Of course, the tales behind the creation of many of these iconic album covers are the meat and potatoes of this film, and they do not disappoint. The behind-the-scenes story of how the striking image of naked golden children climbing Giant’s Causeway in Ireland on the cover of Led Zepplin's Houses of the Holy was dreamed up, photographed, and assembled is fascinating on many levels. Even for someone like me, who grew up well before the digital age, it's kind of amazing to think about someone actually going out and photographing the images on many these covers. The story of the production of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here cover, with a smartly dressed man casually shaking the hand of another smartly dressed man who's on fire, drives that concept home all the more. And then there are the covers that were not photographs, like the one for the amazing 10cc. album The Original Soundtrack, hand drawn by Hipgnosis illustrator Humphrey Ocean, who is also interviewed.
Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols arrives in the picture just in time to put the breaks on all the nostalgic reverie, commenting on how all this artwork that seemed to one generation like the coolest thing ever looked old, elitist, and silly to the kids behind them. Like all Rock Docs, the story builds to the inevitable break up of "the band"; the dissolving of a beautiful friendship and creative partnership. But this also unfolds in ways that feel fresh and distinctive. The "death" of Hipgnosis plays like a lament for a bygone era of excess, invention, and artistry. Corbijn is to be commended for drawing out so much humor and honesty in his interview subjects. No one here seems to have an ax to grind, a score to settle, or a self-serving version of how things really went down. Seeing all these Gods of Rock 'n' Roll now looking like ordinary old English gents almost seems incongruous with the events and lifestyles they describe. Corbijn and writer/co-producer Trish D Chetty capture a moment in time as splendidly as some of the best Hipgnosis images, elevating Squaring the Circle from the bonus feature footnote it could have easily been in different hands.
Anton Corbijn conjures a gorgeous, evocative, honest, and witty Rock Doc about the design team responsible for many of the most iconic album covers of all time.