This is gonna be a tough one.
You see, once upon a time there was an 11-year-old girl who heard this cool “We don’t need no education” song on the radio every day on the way home from basketball practice. She got the album with that song on it for her 12th birthday and was never the same after that (Roger Waters, you have so much to answer for!). She ended up with every Pink Floyd album ever made, not to mention most of the solo albums, bought all sorts of band-related paraphernalia, wallpapered her room with Pink Floyd posters, kept a scrapbook with clippings of the band, and bored all her friends and family silly with talk about the music (note: this was in those ancient days before the Internet was invented, so she had no forums or chat rooms to help vent her fandom). And you’d better believe that she went to see the movie of The Wall when it was in theaters (and was willing to suffer the embarrassment of being taken to it by her dad, since she wasn’t yet old enough to see an R-rated
That girl is more or less grown up now. She’s rather less enthusiastic in her fandom these days (the late-1980s ugliness of the band’s breakup/reformation, he-said/he-said accusations, and asshatish behavior didn’t help). But now here she is to review the movie that she once watched at least once a month, that she once considered one of the Best Movies Ever. Let’s see how time and maturity have tempered that assessment, shall we?
First off, Pink Floyd The Wall is a very odd film, and it probably couldn’t get made today. It’s basically a 90-minute music video, telling its story in a fragmented, occasionally surreal style. We meet rock star Pink (Bob Geldof before he was a knight or a saint) sitting catatonic in his hotel room. What brought him to this sorry state? Glad you asked! Pink has built an emotional wall to insulate himself from the hurtful, hateful world. His father died in World War 2 when Pink was still an infant, his mother overcompensated for dad’s loss by smothering Pink with her attention and overprotectiveness, his schooldays were full of rote learning and corporal punishment, he became a rock star but the tours and drug use took their toll on his already-shaky marriage and his wife left him for another man. So, in addition to developing a very bad case of “It’s all about ME”, Pink has shut himself off emotionally. Unfortunately, sitting there all comfortably numb behind his wall means that the darker, fascistic side of his personality now has free reign.
The Wall is foremost a triumph of style over substance. It’s technically very well done and moves along at a nice clip – kudos go to director Alan Parker, who did probably the best job anyone could have with such an odd project. And of course the music is excellent. Purists will scream about the editing of several songs, though it’s forgivable save for the butchery of “Waiting for the Worms”. And though a couple songs have been cut, most notably “Hey You”, the movie includes the extended “What Shall We Do Now?”, the elegiac “When the Tigers Broke Free”, and re-recorded and improved versions of some songs (most notably "Mother") so I’ve no complaints. (The missing footage for "Hey You" is included as an extra.) The cinematography succeeds in making some ugly sights look very nice. And praise must go to animator Gerald Scarfe, a longtime collaborator of the band’s, for his surrealistic animated sequences that give us a clue as to what goes on in Pink’s head. “Goodbye Blue Sky” with its cowering, gas-masked figures, fascist eagle of destruction, and desolate battlefields/graveyards is probably the best marriage of rock music and visuals since the “Eleanor Rigby” sequence in Yellow Submarine.
The acting is surprisingly good, considering that aside from incoherent screams there’s about 15 lines of actual dialogue in the whole movie. Geldof acquits himself fairly well considering that he’d never acted before (in fact he despised Pink Floyd's music and only took the gig because he wanted to promote his band The Boomtown Rats) and plays not so much a character as life’s whipping boy. (He’s especially good in the scene when Pink finds out his wife’s taken up with another guy.) Bob Hoskins has a small but memorable role as Pink’s manager (his big line before “Comfortably Numb” always is good for a laugh). Everyone else gets the job done, but top acting honors probably go to Kevin McKeon as the adolescent Pink, who manages to gain the audience’s empathy if only for a little while.
Which brings us to the major problem with The Wall (ignore the protests of my inner fangirl). As candy for the eyes and ears, it’s great, if not to all tastes with its often brutal violence, copious nudity, and even more copious blood. But while it’s possible to identify with Pink – who hasn’t had to shut down emotionally to get through bad patches? – it’s difficult to empathize with him and impossible to like him or to care much about his situation, which a friend of mine sums up as "I'm an asshole and it's everyone's fault but mine!" Even more problematical is that Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (who wrote most of the album and the movie’s screenplay) clearly wants the movie to be a cathartic experience and he doesn’t succeed. All the viewer takes away is that life sucks, shutting yourself off from it sucks more, and if you stop shutting yourself off you will … uh, well, it’s not really made clear. What’s missing is a scene of Pink finally emerging from behind his wall, saying, “Now what?”
Which is unfortunate, because aside from a few people who are so compartmentalized that nothing phases them for long, we’ve all been hurt and we’ve all wanted to make the pain go away. But we build walls because we don’t know what else to do, and by the end of the movie we’re no wiser as to what we should do.
That aside, if you don’t look too deep The Wall can be a fun experience, particularly if you view it as Yellow Submarine’s evil twin. Adding to the fun is a splendid set of extras. Documentaries (one made at the time of the film’s release, and a more recent retrospective), excellent audio setup, Easter eggs aplenty, perhaps overly flashy menus (it really would be nice to get to a specific song more easily), the aforementioned "Hey You" footage, and more. Best of all, there’s a commentary by Roger Waters and Gerald Scarfe that’s both informative and hilarious. Yes, I used the words “hilarious” and “Roger Waters” in the same sentence. Trust me.