Unauthorised music documentaries aren’t usually particularly enjoyable unless you’re already very knowledgeable about the subject at hand. The exception to this is when, as here, the subject is someone as interesting and complex—not to mention private—as Brian Eno. By their very nature, being ‘unauthorised’ means the makers had access to neither the man himself nor any of his contemporaries or bandmates, so we have to make do with a cavalcade of critics and writers, and a couple of hangers-on from the early stages of Eno’s career.
The two-and-a-half hour film takes its subtitle (“The Man who Fell to Earth”) from the Nicolas Roeg sci-fi film, and covers the six most interesting years in Eno’s musical life, beginning in 1971. These were not the years in which Eno, arguably the father of contemporary ambient music, made his most interesting or challenging music, but his career in these years underwent a fascinating transmogrification. In a little under half a decade, between 1973 and 1977, Eno released five solo albums— Here Come the Warm Jets (’73); Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (’74); Another Green World & Discreet Music (’75), and Before and After Science (’77)—that, bit by bit, chipped away the many varied influences (across the rock, pop, and folk spectrums) to arrive at a contemporary elucidation of what the French composer Erik Satie had, in 1917, called “musique d’ameublement.”1
He went from dressing in the most ostentatious glam-rock style and playing synths in the prog- & glam-rock band Roxy Music—at the time some called Eno (as he was then known, largely to distinguish himself from Brian Ferry, the band’s lead singer) “more flamboyant than Bowie”—to composing and releasing wordless electronic music, as well as collaborating with and contributing to the engineering of a number of albums by various kraut-rock bands. At the start of this period, Eno, who had never wanted to be a frontman and had a more-hate-than-love love-hate relationship with touring—was a relatively unknown synth player tooling around at or near the back of the stage, often hiding in the shadows, at live gigs; by the end of it, he had become an in-demand producer and was taking studio production techniques to lofty new heights. (The latter side of Eno’s work arguably peaked in 1977 with David Bowie’s hit single “Heroes”; the film’s limited time-span does not allow for discussion of his production work with U2, but does cover his admiration for Talking Heads and in particular that band’s lead singer, David Byrne, with whom Eno still works regularly.)
The most interesting aspect of the documentary, even for Eno-heads, will be its linking of Eno’s avant-garde and (contemporary) classical influences. Beginning with his first solo album, Here Come the Warms Jets, Eno, as one commentator explains, started to “slowly remove the foreground [i.e.: vocals, guitars, percussion] from the rock album.” From Satie through Shoenberg, Cage, and among his influences Eno’s nearest contemporaries, Steve Reich, Terry Reilly and (to a lesser extent) Philip Glass, the documentary examines the connections in form, sound, style, and, most interestingly, theory, between Eno’s proto-ambient work and avant-garde classical.
At various stages of his career, Eno has described himself as a “non-musician,” which makes his ambient work, especially that which is produced through automative means (e.g., Discreet Music), all the more interesting. Eno’s exploratory, groundbreaking albums with Robert Fripp, and his kraut-rock production work and collaborative influences—specifically, can, Harmonia and Cluster, et al.—is also covered in depth. (Here, though, unnecessarily extended, repetitive conversations with Hans-Joachim Roedelius soon become bland and uninformative.) One path that the film only glances at, but one that would have been fascinating to follow, is the many technological and philosophical aspects to Eno’s work: Stafford Beer’s theories of management cybernetics (which led to the “Oblique Strategies” card-set Eno made with Peter Schmidt, a fellow art-school alumnus) are noted tantalisingly briefly. Likewise, Eno’s brief flirtation with rock (via collaborations with John Cale, Nico, Kevin Ayers) in 1974 is but a footnote.
With no direct access to Eno (who is in any case apparently somewhat publicity-shy), and with a seemingly restricted ability to include footage from extant interviews (two 2008 BBC Arena interviews are excerpted, albeit only in sound-bite form), interviews with more than half a dozen writers, theorists and critics, and former collaborators, are assembled into a patchwork and form the bulk of the film. Those who have the most insightful things to say are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the critics and theorists, not the musicians with whom Eno sporadically worked during this phase in his career—most of them come off as midly dim-witted eccentrics.
Eno biographers David Sheppard (“On Some Faraway Beach”) and Eric Tamm (“Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound”) are—with Geeta Dayal (who wrote the 33⅓ book on Eno’s landmark album Another Green World), Simon Reynolds (“Retromania”), David Toop (“Ocean of Sound: Æther Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds”), and Mark Prendergast (“The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Moby—the Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age”)—given the most screen-time. The self-appointed “dean of American rock critics,” Robert Christgau, pops up now all too often to add overly self-referential, fawning remarks: for instance, to illustrate the album’s longevity and importance, he blabbers on about how he would play one Another Green World to his young daughter in the mid-Eighties.
Though Eno himself makes only a minute appearance in the film, much of his music is played in generous stretches, and some tracks are allowed to run their entire length. Because music videos were not commonplace until the following decade, the filmmakers have adopted an interesting strategy: to accompany Eno’s often otherworldly synth-heavy production, footage has been licensed from various avant-garde and experimental films (“The Big Ship” plays over the celebrated Pruitt-Igoe sequence from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatisi); in addition, striking scenes from masterpieces by Tarkovsky and Christopher Petit (Radio On) take on new meaning when combined with Eno’s music.
The final half-hour of the film covers the founding of Eno’s label Oblique Records, which helped bring to attention the work of a number of minimalist and avant-garde composers, including Michael Nyman, John Adams, Gavin Breyers, Harold Budd, and the Penguin Café Orchestra. Eno’s production work on Bowie’s Berlin-period masterpieces Low and Heroes nicely wraps up the film and concludes the seven-year survey. Though it is an undeniably fruitful period in the work of a hugely ambitious artist, too much of the film is spent in redundant conversation with collaborators; it’s Eno’s ideas, theoretical influences and techniques that have remained central to his appeal, and this documentary has seemingly overlooked the opportunity to explore those in depth.
1. Erik Satie’s influence (via Cage) on Eno becomes clear only—and then, blindingly so—upon hearing Reinbert de Leeuw’s masterful, beautifully slow interpretations of the Gnossiennes & Gymnopédies (of which № 1 is excerpted in the film, set to footage of quotidian fin-de-siècle Paris).
Brian Eno, 1971–1977: The Man who Fell to Earth is on DVD now from Vendetta Films.
Special features include profiles of the interviewees and a featurette on one of Eno’s lesser-known collaborative projects in the mid-’70s.