In the rock doc In the Court of the Crimson King, Toby Amies lets you into the backstage of the prophets of prog rock.
Lock five or six of the world’s best rock musicians in a room under the supervision of the ever-demanding guitar guru Robert Fripp. Let them loose with metal riffs, mellotrons, polyrhythmic patterns and fingerings that are so complex that it seems as if they are cracking a mathematical code with their instruments. Then throw away the key and come a month later to listen to the ‘songs’ that they have put together with iron discipline in the meantime. This is assuming they didn’t kill each other, that is.
That is the essence of King Crimson, a group that for half a century has been as inscrutable as the average tax return, and as predictable as a weather forecast during a tornado, but at the same time one of the most influential rock bands of all time. Together with his acolytes, Fripp redefined and twisted the boundaries of the rock genre until it groaned with wonder, confusion, and – if the muse is right – pure ecstasy. It is an ethos that has generated hatred and ridicule in conservative pop circles, but outside of it, timeless albums like In the Court of the Crimson King, the iconic debut from 1969, Ed (1974) and Discipline (1981), records with top musicians who came, saw, conquered and then left again. Fripp was the only one who remained seated all this time – figuratively, but also literally on stage – as the bespectacled, cerebral cherub of prog rock.
When you watch a documentary about King Crimson – that many-headed, ravenous but noble monster of rock – you expect nothing less than a film that is as chameleonic and iconoclastic as the band itself. But the most contradictory thing about it In the Court of the Crimson King is that filmmaker and melomaniac Toby Amies keeps it conventional for an hour and a half. It is the familiar, smoothly edited mix of interviews with band members (current and former), from footage on the road and (short) live fragments from the world tour in 2019 and 2020 that together lift the veil behind the legendary anti-rock combo.
Who has integral registrations of 21st Century Schizoid Man, Epitaph, Starless or other Crimson classics, of sorts This is Spinal Tap of the prog rock scene, with drummers exploding behind an impressive battery of kits and cymbals, this documentary should be ignored. But that doesn’t mean there’s no humor in it. Only it is of the more bitter kind, thanks to Fripp, of whom you never know whether his sometimes vicious, sometimes profound comments are sincere or mind games to keep you as a musician – or viewer – alert.
What is also in the documentary is pain and melancholy, and not just through drummer Bill Rieflin talking about his terminal colon cancer. The testimonies show that being in King Crimson is at least as often a punishing expedition as it is a liberating musical odyssey; an image that is not only confirmed by Adrian Belew, the singer-guitarist who suddenly dismissed Fripp after years of service, but even by current band members.
“King Crimson are so good that I wanted to quit when I first heard them,” Jimi Hendrix once said. And even though this pretty classic rock doc doesn’t fall into the same category; he is certainly witty, revealing and entertaining.
On display at Studio Skoop, Ghent; De Cinema, Antwerp; Buda, Kortrijk and The Roxy Theatre, Koersel.