Rock stars: They're different from us. That's why we love them, and that's why sometimes they can fool themselves into thinking they're Hitler.
That, as far as I can tell, is the message of Pink Floyd The Wall, Alan Parker's 1982 film based on the British rockers' 1979 album The Wall. Despite the group's name in the title, the movie is very clear about its real author: "By Roger Waters" runs right after the title card. With Waters in town to rebuild the Wall tonight at Toyota Center, I thought I'd watch Parker's movie, which I had never seen before, for the first time as a little homework.
Pink Floyd The Wall stars Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats, who not long after the film was released would have an attack of conscience in Ethiopia and found Live Aid. (Just think, this movie could have starred Bono.) Pink loses his father to WWII, is saddled with a mother who smothers him when she's not emasculating him by taking other men into her bed, and survives a nightmarish British boarding-school childhood to emerge as a rich and famous rock and roll star.
The movie opens with Pink sequestered in a ritzy L.A. hotel room, where he appears to have been for some time. Later, the camera flashes on Pink at a piano while his wife wanders by to take up a few moments of her brief screen time (the rest is spent in bed with another man), but that's about all the time Pink Floyd The Wall spends on how Pink got to be famous, although I guess you have to count the early scene based on the real-life riot at an L.A. Pink Floyd show in 1975. The groupie scene set to "Young Lust" seems to be in the movie mostly to give several young actresses a chance to flash their boobs.
Pink is a very passive rock star; he's not even that interested in sex. Granted, when we find him he is in the throes of a pretty severe hit of narcotics -- although we never see him shoot up on camera, it's certainly implied -- but besides fumbling around with a groupie played by Val Kilmer's future wife, his biggest non-hallucinatory action in the film is the postcoital rage he flies into after they're done. Then he ODs, and is taken to the hospital to the strains of "Comfortably Numb."
The doctor's shot stirs up something in Pink, and thanks to the movie he had been watching on TV -- a real 1955 British WWII movie called The Dam Busters, which I'm guessing commemorates the same battle where father died -- he hallucinates himself as a Hitler-esque dictator who uses an anthropomorphic ball-peen hammer with compass-like legs as his swastika. "Are there any queers in the theater tonight," he asks in the reprise of "In the Flesh." "That one looks Jewish!"
At this point I confess I had a hard time figuring out exactly what was going on; some have interpreted the Triumph of the Will-style "In the Flesh" rally as what Pink sees while he performs a concert, or (like much of the movie) it all could be in his head. Also, as he is being wheeled into the hospital, Pink rapidly ages into a grotesque resemblance of his former self, and there are lots of maggots and worms. It's pretty gross.
This year is Pink Floyd The Wall's 30th anniversary, and it has aged better in some ways than others. It was made and released within about a year of MTV going on the air, and some of the setpieces could have almost aired on the channel as is, like the assembly-line/meat-grinder of schoolchildren that is "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2."
Gerald Scarfe's striking animation helps enhance the themes of war and sex; the dance between two fleshy flowers thinly disguised as genitalia is about as close to porn as movies could get in 1982. No doubt many a joint is still being burned during late-night double features of Pink Floyd The Wall and Heavy Metal.
The music also holds up excellently. I have never actually owned a copy of The Wall (gasp!) but still recognized almost all of the songs, even the ones I didn't realize were on the album: "Young Lust," "Run Like Hell." I must not be alone; The Wall is still among iTunes' Top 30 Rock Albums.
But using a hammer as Pink's fascist insignia shows one way Pink Floyd The Wall has aged poorly. A hammer is an outdated tool from another age, a relic left over from the Industrial Revolution. (Though still useful for hanging pictures.) If Waters and Parker really wanted to make a point about conformity and control and cults of personality, they would have replaced that hammer with a microchip. Or the Apple logo.
The biggest difference between then and now is that Pink has fame thrust upon him. That's the whole point of his building "the wall": To shut himself off from groupies, the sleazy rock and roll enablers (embodied by Bob Hoskins as his manager), even the fans.
The irony is that he traps the people who have made him such a fucked-up individual -- his domineering mother, his dead soldier of a father, his philandering wife -- inside the wall with him. His only shot at redemption is self-destruction; to "bring down the wall."
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Today everybody wants to be famous, and thanks to social media everybody is at least a little famous. Everybody thinks they're a rock star, which means even the real rock stars are brought down to Earth. Thanks to TMZ, we've seen them at the supermarket, at their kids' soccer games, even sometimes on the can.
But the reality is we can't all grow up to be rock stars -- or dictators, which is probably for the best. Some of us are just hoping to reach more than 300 followers on Twitter.