King Crimson are a band usually described as prog rock, although metal, industrial, jazz, experimental and, my favourite, math rock have all been accurate-enough labels over their 50-plus-year career. They are also a bit of an acquired taste, and many of those who’ve acquired it are incredibly, zealously, maybe sometimes even a little dysfunctionally passionate, to the point where, say, Grateful Dead fans might counsel them to chill out. But the great thing about this thoughtful, intimate portrait of them is that one doesn’t even need to like their music all that much to find this film by director Toby Amies utterly enthralling. Somehow it ends up being about a lot more than just King Crimson.
In one way, for instance, this is a workplace comedy, like The Office but with huge drum kits, grizzled roadies and rapturous fans who are almost all late-middle aged white guys (except for the 20% or so who aren’t, such as the young Norwegian nun who finds parallels with religious music in King Crimson’s sound). The fan commitment is not all that surprising given the passion of the band themselves, especially the group’s leader and one constant over the years, guitarist Robert Fripp. A bespectacled, often severely suited figure with a West Country accent, Fripp explains here how he still practices for over 45 hours a week, and that doesn’t count performing. Severe and exacting, he’s clearly something of a musical martinet. Yet that perfectionism is also inspiring too: it explains perhaps why the many musicians we meet here have stayed with him, or quarrelled with him and stopped talking to him altogether, but still speak of him with awe.
As well as workplace comedy, this film also acts as an elegy for fallen friends, especially Bill Rieflin, the charming and dry-witted American multi-instrumentalist, who is clearly beloved by Fripp and his co-conspirators. Rieflin is first met bantering with director Amies, coyly asking if Amies would like to watch him undress. (It’s not a real offer, apparently, just an “attempt to understand the boundaries of their relationship”.) Rieflin, it turns out, has cancer and dies towards the end of the film, which Amies dedicates to him. But there’s nothing sentimental about this documentary, which looks at people with the clear, unflinching gaze of a portraitist.