The Sundance documentary explores the studio that made some of the best-known albums covers in rock history
I’m sort of used to music documentaries like Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis. It’s not about a particular person or band, but instead a record label or maybe a recording studio. That way, it can tell an expansive story that brings footage and talking heads from different corners of music history.
But this film takes things in another, more fascinating direction by introducing us to the guys who designed the album covers.
Squaring the Circle, directed by Anton Corbijn, looks specifically at Hipgnosis. This British design firm was responsible for some of the most iconic album covers, mostly from the 1970s but beyond that. Corbijn, the director, himself comes from the same world, with an extensive body of work both as a photographer and music video director; he also directed the George Clooney thriller The American and the posthumous Philip Seymour Hoffman movie A Most Wanted Man, although this is his feature directorial debut.
A Telluride debut that’s at Sundance as well, Squaring the Circle is a fun ride for anyone with any affection for that era of music, especially those who miss the days when album cover art mattered.
The firm’s principals were Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell. Powell is interviewed in the documentary while Thorgerson is deceased, but the bulk of the interviewees quickly note what an irritable asshole the guy was.
They worked with Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney and Wings, and numerous other top acts of the time. Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” which turns 50 this year, was one of theirs; hilariously, a recent social media post about an anniversary re-release led to outrage over the inclusion of a rainbow, which was, somewhat hilariously, interpreted by some fans as a symbol of LGBTQ support and not as part of the original design.
The covers took a great deal of effort and money, sometimes requiring long photo shoots. We hear about it all from Powell and also from a group of talking heads that includes the surviving Floyd members, as well as McCartney, Peter Gabriel, and both Robert Plant and Jimmy Page; this movie was clearly made by someone with significant music industry connections.
Speaking of which, the filmmakers got the rights to some of the music for the movie and clearly milks them for all they’re worth, playing the entire instrumental intro of Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” on two different occasions. Which, to be clear, I would absolutely do it if I were in their shoes.
The film has been picked up by Utopia for, presumably, theatrical release.