DVD Review: Pink Floyd The Story of Wish You Were Here
June 26, 2012 – Glenn McDonald
The mythology surrounding Pink Floyd has only grown over the years since the band’s demise. Floyd charted new territories in rock music during their run, pioneering certain aspects of psychedelic music and more or less inventing the progressive sound sometimes called space rock.
In term of rock and roll myth-making, it didn’t hurt that the band had two resident geniuses in David Gilmour and Roger Waters, and a third in founder and acid casualty Syd Barrett, who ultimately journeyed to the dark side of his own distant moon, and never came back. Barrett left the group in 1968.
The new documentary film Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here excavates a particular portion of the Pink Floyd mythology by focusing on the band’s brilliant 1974 album Wish You Were Here. The album is famously dedicated to founder Barrett, and structured around the 25-minute epic, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
The recording sessions at London’s Abbey Road studios were difficult, to say the least. The band was coming apart at the seams after the massive success of Dark Side of the Moon, which further stressed the band’s already fractured relationship with pop stardom. Two of the songs on Wish would address that issue directly, the snarky “Have a Cigar” and the vicious “Welcome to the Machine.”
For dedicated Floyd-heads, this is the fascinating stuff. The film demonstrates how very deliberately the band crosscut between the album’s two themes – the absence of Barrett, and the evils of the recording industry. Under the direction of the meticulous alpha dog Waters, Wish You Were Here is the LP album as tightly focused artistic whole. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Structure and Song
The film is structured very conventionally, and is focused primarily on interviews with the three surviving members of Pink Floyd – Waters, Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason, along with some older interviews with keyboardist Richard Wright, who passed away in 2008. The filmmakers also share a wealth of archival photos and images.
Other interviewees include Peter Jenner, the band’s former manager; musician Roy Harper, who sings lead on “Have a Cigar” (I didn’t know that!); Storm Thorgerson, graphic designer for Floyd and many contemporaries; and assorted members of the usual rock band traveling court – sound engineers, photographers, journalists ….
You get the usual behind-the-scenes details concerning the recording sessions, some expected (Waters and Gilmour argue a lot), some less so (the entire record was inspired by an accidental four-note guitar sequence).
In one interesting clip, backup singer Venetta Fields, a veteran of the rock scene in the ’60s and ’70s, describes working with the band: “I thought Motown was meticulous, but these were the four most meticulous musicians that I’d ever seen work before.”
By far the most haunting aspects of the story are those concerning the fate of Barrett. Rock lore has it that Barrett was a victim of too many psychedelic drugs, but as the film attests, that’s only part of the story. An enormously gifted musician and songwriter, Barrett was almost certainly mentally ill to begin with. The consensus among those in the film seems to be that drugs, and the pressures of the band, simply pushed him over the edge
Old footage and photos from the 1960s paint Barrett as a charismatic rock star. “It was annoying,” says Mason. “Syd was good-looking and could paint and always had girlfriends.”
In the film’s most chilling moments, Gilmour and Waters recall when Barrett actually visited the studios toward the end of recording the album. Bloated and disheveled, with his head and eyebrows shaved, the band didn’t even recognize their founding member at first. A single photo exists of Barrett at this stage, and he looks indeed like a metal ward escapee. Waters admits to having wept after that encounter, and no one from the band ever saw Barrett again. (He died in 2006.)
Sound and Vision
The filmmakers occasionally switch up the visual template with animations from illustrator Gerald Scarfe, who worked with the band on tour visuals and would go onto design Pink Floyd’s epic freakout The Wall. Scarfe’s images are still evocative – morphing spheres and praying hands, demon robots and oceans of blood. Good times.
The film could use more of this, frankly. As a rock doc, Wish sticks to the conservative made-for-broadcast format and there’s an over-reliance on title cards to move the story along. Ideally, documentaries structure themselves with voiceover from the interviewees stitching events together. But instead we spend an awful lot of time reading words onscreen about what happened next.
But the thing sure sounds great. Both DVD and Blu-ray have multiple output options, and the HD sound on Blu-ray was terrific using my home theater set-up. The mad bass rumblings on “Welcome to the Machine” are particularly menacing as they’re pulled out and isolated on the mixing board.
The film begins and ends with the band’s only true reunion, an appearance at the 2005 Live 8 concert in which Waters joined his bandmates onstage for the first time in 24 years. The half-hour or so of included extras feature interview outtakes and snippets from Waters and Gilmour playing “Shine On” and the album’s title track.
Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here is a must-see for Floyd fans. “Timeless” is a term thrown around too often, but the music this band generated truly does have a timeless quality. Nothing in their suite of prime records – The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall – sounds dated today.
Not to get too spacy, but in certain moments, Pink Floyd’s music can sound like its coming from somewhere outside time and space entirely – halfway between the moon and the madhouse.