Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Just last week I wrote about a perfectly serviceable documentary, one that told a remarkable story, but one which did not strike me as a particularly good (or even necessary) movie. The difference isn't always easy to identify or name—beyond relative technical proficiencies, I suppose—but I suspect it's probably got something to do with the slippery distinction between reportage and art.
Sure, truth is beauty and beauty is truth, as the man said, but for a documentary to stand as cinema it should do more than simply report the facts honestly. (Sometimes, in fact, it may not even do that.) A great documentary—like a great piece of reporting, a great non-fiction book, or even a great lecture—makes you feel like it's about something more than its subject. It approaches its chosen topic with vision, and imagination, and insight. It uses the peculiar strengths and artistry of its form to share the facts or history in a compelling, expansive, emotionally engaging way. Facts I can get by Googling. If you want to lure me into a movie theater for a couple hours, I want something more original, more universal, and—yes—more beautiful than any straight reporting or accounting could ever be.
All of which is to say that I kind of loved Anton Corbijn's Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis). I had never heard of Hipgnosis, I had no particular interest in the company's history, and I was (full-disclosure) not remotely in the mood to watch a documentary on the night I saw it. But from its arresting opening shots—in lovely, high-contrast black-and-white, of an old man shambling through a graveyard with a large, battered art portfolio roped to his back—I was amused, intrigued, and enchanted. Squaring the Circle turns out to be the story of a short-lived company that produced album covers for several rock bands. It is also, as it turns out, a comedy, a tragedy, several character studies, a love story, a hate story, a heist-movie, and both a celebration of, and lament for, people, arts, and times now lost. (And it's a damn well-made movie in its own right.)
That's what I want from a great documentary. Is that so much to ask?
The older gentleman in the graveyard is Aubrey "Po" Powell, one of the two founders of Hipgnosis, a London-based creative firm that produced some of the most iconic album covers for some of the greatest rock bands of the 1970s, including Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. (Hence the title of the film, which sounds like an advanced mathematics problem, but really just means they made square art for circular records. I'd be ashamed to tell you how long it took me to realize that.)
Po is our chief witness to the story of Hipgnosis, but the film is filled with interviews with other people who worked for the maverick design firm, as well as musicians who worked with them like Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Jimmy Page, Peter Gabriel, and many more. Though making artful use of archival footage, it's primarily an oral history, and not always a reliable one. We hear about six different explanations, for example, of who came up with the name "Hipgnosis," a portmanteau of "hip" and "gnostic" that perfectly captures the stoned, psychedelic counter-culture of art students and other bohemians that birthed the company in 1968. And it's one of the charms of the film that expecting any of these people to remember that era clearly is asking a lot. (Led Zeppelin front-man Robert Plant says he has no idea how the group first hooked up with Hipgnosis: Did he meet them on the street? At a party? During a drug deal? Who can say, really?)
But Squaring the Circle knows that legends are more important than facts anyway. And the absent legend at the center of this story is Po's best friend and business partner Storm Thorgerson, who died in 2013, and whom everyone seems to agree was a genius, a visionary, and an incredibly, insufferably difficult human being. ("He was the rudest person I've ever met," someone says. "He was purely rude," someone else clarifies. "A man who wouldn't take yes for an answer.") As we hear the stories, the tumultuous partnership between Po and Storm takes on all the dynamics of any great band—creative differences, conflicting sensibilities, drug-and-money issues, angry break-ups and reconciliations—and becomes the tragic love/hate story that is the poignant heart of the film.
But it's the accounts of the work itself that really fascinate, and which make Squaring the Circle such an entertaining and enlightening time capsule. In contrast to our current time—when there's a copy of Photoshop on every computer desktop, and AI bots are putting real graphic designers out of business—the story of Hipgnosis reminds us what creativity used to look like, for better or worse. For the image of red balls in the desert that grace the cover of an Elegy album—an image that would take about six minutes for someone to produce on their laptop now—Po describes shipping deflated plastic balls to the Sahara and then flying over to blow them all up by hand. Paul McCartney had Hipgnosis fly a statue to the top of Mount Everest, to get an image that (as he realizes now) could have been shot in a studio for all you can see of the mountain. The most ridiculous story among dozens is probably the shooting of the cover for Pink Floyd's Animals, which involved an elaborate plan to float a giant inflatable pig over Battersea Station, and for which authorities insisted a marksman be standing by to shoot the pig down should it somehow break loose. (It did break loose, and was not shot down, but went on to menace the countryside and alter commercial flight-patterns for days. And Hipgnosis didn't even get the shot, so Po ended up doing the whole thing by collage anyway.) It's in these moments that Squaring the Circle comes to feel like a delightfully absurd and ridiculously funny heist movie.
Mostly, Squaring the Circle resonates as an artful, surprisingly emotional evocation of an era now lost. Hipgnosis went out of business in 1983, after video had taken over the visual interpretation of music, but there was a time when album covers were "the poor man's art collection." (This is something Noel Gallagher of Oasis describes trying to explain to his daughter, who grew up looking at album covers as tiny icons on an iPhone. His daughter, he says, couldn't believe that designing those was actually someone's job.) It was an era when London was "lawless," and a bunch of bohemian art students working out of a "shithole" apartment on Denmark Street could become the premiere design firm for the biggest bands in England. It was an era before music had been completely co-opted into a corporate commodity, and people genuinely believed that a good song—or a good picture—could actually change the world. And, perhaps most poignantly, it was an era when the old men of today were young revolutionaries, messy and idealistic, fueled by the passion and creativity and friendship that were—for a while, at least—far more useful and important than good business sense could ever have been.