Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)
(UK, 101 min.)
Dir. Anton Corbijn
For those of us into vinyl (and, over the last decade or so, there are millions more of us), the album cover is a fundamental part of the ritual of listening. One can only weep for generations weaned on streaming algorithms and singles, a throwback (ironically) to a songs-first mentality that preceded the heyday of album oriented rock (AOR). In its most simple form, album artwork exploded in popularity with Peter Blake’s cover for Sgt. Pepper and culminated around the advent of Napster at the turn of the millennium and the eventual rise of the $1-a-song sellers, which merged into full-throated streaming services.
For a period that went past boomer iconography into this Gen-X’ers formative high school period, the 12”x12” canvas of the vinyl record was a boon for designers, photographers, and artists. An album cover let them add to the story of a given record, itself (ideally) not a mere collection of sporadic songs but a statement, with a carefully sequenced running order and an “all killer, no filler” intention.
Leave it then to Anton Corbijn, the man behind the cover of many iconic U2 albums including Joshua Tree, which rings out decades on with its simple black, white and gold aesthetic, to tell the tale with his feature doc debut of Hipgnosis, one of the most successful album design houses of all time. It was synonymous with a particular 1960s/’70s aesthetic that blended surrealism, stark graphic ideas, quirky photography, and upended expectations with classic cover after classic cover.
Squaring the Circle tells the tale of two Cambridge lads, Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powel, creative types who happened to be hanging in the same circles as art school students that would form a band named after blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council, which were owned by their erstwhile leader Roger “Syd” Barrett. As the Pink Floyd sound developed, they asked Storm and Po to take a chance on a cover that exemplified their psychedelic sound and stage presence, naming their design firm Hipgnosis. A surreal landscape of swirling stars and comic book iconography, 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets helped upend the cliché, where you could perhaps judge a work by its cover. Thus launched one of the most successful bands of all time, but also cover artists who would shape the image of not only Pink Floyd, but also many massive acts in an era where cost was no object and the impulses of the acts knew no bounds.
From the cow on Atom Heart Mother, which was meant to be meaningless but is now inextricably linked to that album, through to their masterpieces Dark Side of the Moon, with its simple, graphic prism, or Wish You Were Here, with a burning man shot at the Warner Brother’s studio lot shaking hands with a business person, these images are as indelible as the music they evoke. Led Zeppelin hired the company, and some of their finest pieces were associated with slightly less beloved records. Even seemingly straightforward classics like Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run, with escaping convicts caught in a spotlight against a brick wall, have the handiwork of Hipgnosis imprinted on them.
Corbijn’s film contextualizes the period well, particularly for viewers who didn’t live through this era. The inclusion of the always sardonic Noel Gallagher of Oasis is a nice touch, as his unabashed nostalgia is on play, as well as the self-awareness that he was too out of it when making his own masterpiece to have given as much care for his cover as he would have liked.
Members of Floyd, Zeppelin, and even “Macca: himself show up for interviews, a testament to the power of Corbijn’s contact list, but it’s Powell who does the most reflecting, presenting a nuanced take on the history of his partnership that never defaults to self-aggrandisement. It’s clear that his late partner Storm lived up to the tempestuous nature of his moniker, and rather than simply slagging the dead, things are made clear in context. Powell demonstrates not only the highs of their adventure together but also the obvious lows.
There’s a point where it’s admitted that if Dark Side was terrible, then no one would care about the damn prism, but that’s a counterfactual point unable to be proven. The fact is that that the black cover with the thin strips of white and then rainbow light is as tied to one of the most successful records of all time as tracks like “Money” or “Great Gig in the Sky” are. Except in extremely rare conditions, this fact simply is no longer the case with small icons showing up in your streamer’s play screen.
Squaring the Circle is a celebration not only of Hipgnosis, but it also makes sense of this particular aspect of the vinyl-playing ritual. One the one hand there is a sense of the silly, obsessing about the wrapping paper rather than the gift contained inside. Yet thanks to the works of Hipgnosis, these iconic images are as indelible as the music contained within. For many of their more bold covers from lesser bands, the Hipgnosis design has outlived even the appreciation for the tunes themselves.
Reviewed at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Update (5/6/2023): Squaring the Circle opens in cinemas beginning June 9.