KING CRIMSON’S king Robert Fripp. (photo credit: Monoduo Films)
KING CRIMSON’S king Robert Fripp. (photo credit: Monoduo Films)
Film on UK prog-rock King Crimson to open Tel Aviv festival

Toby Amies is one durable dude. Earlier this year, the veteran British TV show presenter and filmmaker, with a decided penchant for offbeat areas of the arts, completed a documentary about legendary British prog rock group King Crimson, which goes by the self-explanatory moniker of In the Court of the Crimson King. King Crimson at 50.

Just in case you happen to be entirely oblivious to the band’s oeuvre, the first part of the film title references their debut studio album which came out in October 1969. The record did pretty well for itself on both sides of the Atlantic and introduced rock fans worldwide to King Crimson’s deft concoction of rock seasoned with jazz and classical music, with bucketloads of raw energy thrust into the mix. However, for many rock fans of the appropriate vintage, much of the group’s ensuing body of work is either filed under the “vague memory” tag or is simply unknown.

The movie serves as the curtain raiser for the Soundtrack Tel Aviv Film Festival, a new music documentary film event that takes place at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque November 15-19. Amies will wing his way over here from the UK to grace us with his presence at the screening, which kicks off at 8 p.m. on the first evening.

The story of King Crimson

There have been volumes of rockumentaries put out over the years, profiling A-lister bands of all ilks. They generally slot interview vignettes betwixt footage of the guys doing their thing on stage. King Crimson at 50 has plenty of the former but precious little in the way of live performance material. Indeed, the Amies film appears to zone in from well outside the beaten documentary path, which is only natural considering he was tackling one of the truly irrepressible left-field acts of the rock domain.

 King Crimson in 2016 in Madrid (credit: Wikimedia Commons) King Crimson in 2016 in Madrid (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The personal, philosophical and musical bedrock of the group is Robert Fripp, guitarist, producer, authoritarian and the only ever-present member of King Crimson. Almost unfailingly decked out in a three-piece suit, at the age of 76 he looks like, as one character in the film notes, the Dorset estate agent his father wanted him to be. Fripp also commissioned the film, which he hoped would spread the King Crimson word ever further and wider.

Whether that objective is achieved only time will tell. But one thing is for certain, with Amies at the helm, and behind the camera, the audience in Tel Aviv and elsewhere across the globe have a masterly crafted silver screen to view and engross themselves in.

The opening reference to the director’s emotional robustness filters through the storyline repeatedly. Fripp, it transpires, is not only a highly gifted, dedicated bordering on the obsessive, supremely professional artist but is as tough a cookie as you are likely to encounter anywhere.

Opinion of the rock stalwart runs the gamut from caustic to gushing. Notwithstanding his air of pristine austerity, the band leader oozes character and charisma and you never really know what to expect. That, wittingly or otherwise, keeps everyone on their toes: band members, the viewers and filmmaker alike.

THE FILMMAKING process turned out to be one helluva roller coaster. Hence, I wondered whether Amies had any idea of what he was letting himself in for – one might have thought he had. After all, Fripp and Amies’s parents live on the same street, in the same village, in England’s Midlands. The director and the documentary’s protagonist have even had occasion to socialize. None of this, it seems, prepared Amies for the filmic trip. He says he had absolutely no inkling of what was in store for him. “I think that part of my shock was to do with not realizing just how seriously the work was taken. There were undeniably times when it was really frustrating and there were certainly times when I thought this isn’t entirely fair.”

“I think that part of my shock was to do with not realizing just how seriously the work was taken. There were undeniably times when it was really frustrating and there were certainly times when I thought this isn’t entirely fair.”

Toby Amies

But it wasn’t all challenging in the extreme. Amies feels he reaped rich rewards from the odyssey and was left with a fresh perspective on Fripp et al. “Nevertheless, I have walked out of that experience with a tremendous amount of respect for the band’s creative process, and particularly for their commitment to doing the best job they possibly can.”

That is glaringly evident throughout the 86 minutes of visual action, in both the physical and emotional sense of the word.

And although Fripp is the undoubted captain of the rock ship, with his gifted gnarled hands firmly on the rudder, and is the star turn of the documentary, King Crimson at 50 is peopled by a cast of characters each of whom has their own compelling story to tell about their part in the band’s evolution and about themselves.

Amies is clearly blessed not only with thick skin but also with the emotional wherewithal and savvy to know when to back off and when to stand his ground. As the storyline unravels, you sense the director has won the musicians’ trust. That comes across in its most feral form in a tete-a-tete towards the end of the film. It would not be going too far to say it is a moment of extreme cinematic and personal tension, when obduracy and fragility cross swords.

That, for the director, is part and parcel of the craft, and offers epiphanous gains. “I think people go to the cinema to see images projected onto the cave wall, as it were. They allow us to explore the dilemmas, challenges and confusions we experience in our own life. We use the characters on the screen to exemplify and exaggerate dynamics that we experience on a day-to-day basis.”

Amies tenaciously followed that line of thought right down the rabbit hole of the musicians’ chemistry and psyche, and came out with a veritable documental treasure trove. It is tempting to call In the Court of the Crimson King. King Crimson at 50 a warts-and-all work but it is so much more than that. And let’s not forget the fans and the vibrant reciprocal loving relationship they have with Fripp and the gang. They are very much integral to the band’s story and play their part in the movie. There are plenty of lighter and fun moments in there, too.

This is an engaging and captivating documentary, which stands a good chance of achieving exactly what Fripp set out to do. I, for one, was tempted not only to pull out my vinyl of the group’s first release I was also moved to dig into half a century-plus of King Crimson’s unstinting pursuit of creative heights.

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