Sundance 2023 Review: Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)
Album cover maestro Anton Corbijn highlights the art mavericks
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00PM, Tue. Jan. 24, 2023
If you were going to ask any filmmaker to create a documentary about arguably the greatest album art creators ever, then the only suitable contender is the other name often raised as the greatest album cover creator. Thus, Anton Corbijn has directed Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis).
On paper, it's the perfect combination. Corbijn was a prime visualist of the eighties, the second wave of great album art and of bands truly integrating their music into a broader artistic vibe. Imagine Depeche Mode or U2 without his distinctive silvery-blacks and sharp lines, his work often metaphorical, Biblical, fetishistic. Visually, he could not be further removed from Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey "Po" Powell, aka design duo Hipgnosis. Their work was muddy but minimalist, impish and absurd, produced in a fashion that Powell described as "aggressive, relentless, difficult, and obsessed." It's also absolutely synonymous with what Corbijn presents as the golden age of album covers, having put their 12 inches of card around seminal albums by 10cc, Peter Gabriel, Wishbone Ash, Led Zeppelin, and most importantly their old Cambridge friends Pink Floyd.
That on-paper perfection of director and subject makes it to the screen in what is both a compliment and a rebuttal to the 2011 SXSW selection, Taken by Storm: The Art of Storm Thorgerson and Hipgnosis. As that title reflects, the earlier work was centered on Thorgerson as the creative genius: a status never denied by Corbijn, but this time he allows an appreciation for others in the studio, like designer Richard Evans, photographer and future Throbbing Gristle keyboardist Peter Christopherson and most especially Powell, who leads the narrative with honesty, self-criticism, and an acerbic tongue.
"There was genius in there," as longtime friend/sometimes infuriated client Dave Gilmour explains, "but there were times when they weren't that professional." As Corbijn also explores, the core duo were often in conflict, with Powell as the photographer/businessman/occasional crook and Thorgerson as the ideas man who was always pushing artistic boundaries.
Corbijn manages to capture their you-know-it-when-you-see-it Hipgnosis style through his own crystalline lens, even in his archival selections. His own experiences in the field subtly inform the documentary's idea of covers as part publicity and part (as inveterate and always entertaining talking head Noel Gallagher notes) working-class art gallery. That's why Hipgnosis in particular were so special, and so lucky - to come along at a time when rock & roll was rolling in drugs, cash, and experimentation, and bands and labels were prepared to spend $150,000 on madcap endeavors like putting a statue on Everest (literally the story behind the sleeve for Wings Greatest, one of many unhinged anecdotes about just one of the legendary works for which they were responsible). Somewhere between scam artists and pure artists, they put wild, ambitious, conceptual artwork in millions of homes, becoming arguably the most important designers of the classic rock era.
That perfect pairing of Corbijn and Hipgnosis also provides a deeply satisfying conclusion that makes sense of the director's decision to cut away Powell and Thorgerson's pre-Hipgnosis life. Their decline and the eventual disbanding of the company in 1983 was heralded by the aesthetic changes to the visual side of music culture - many of them wrought by Corbijn and his peers. This is, after all, the story of Hipgnosis, not of its two founders, and of their 15-year run that did as much to define the music of the era as any instrument or melody.
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 19-29. Info and online passes at festival.sundance.org.