‘Squaring The Circle’ is a paean to the lost art of album covers
This week, the new Anton Corbijn documentary and a bizarre take on the superhero genre, ‘Smoking Causes Coughing’, are the films to watch in our screening rooms
Saturday 15 July 2023 By Hanna Flint
In Squaring The Circle (The Story Of Hipgnosis), the new documentary from Anton Corbijn, Noel Gallagher offers a familial anecdote about his daughter not understanding the concept of album artwork. Part of a generation brought up on iTunes rather than HMV, the idea that her rock-star dad would spend hours discussing (what she simply believed to be) the look of a tiny image that accompanies a track on a streaming platform seemed bizarre. ‘She said, “they have meetings for that?”’ Gallagher remarks. ‘As I pulled out the cover, I said, “Yes, and it costs a f**king 100 grand!”’
Gallagher is one of the many rock ‘n’ roll talking heads reminiscing about the lost brilliance of the music album cover, as defined by the iconic graphic art studio, Hipgnosis (the ‘g’ is silent). When he was coming up with Oasis, they couldn’t afford the quirky visual stylings of the London-based outfit originated by the late Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey ‘Po’ Powell, but he recognised the creative value that their work added to a band or musician’s musical releases. ‘You’ve got posh people with art on the wall,’ Gallagher says. ‘And working-class people with art on the floor stacked against a wall.’
Shot in black and white – with colour solely used to ensure the selected Hipgnosis album covers shine – Corbijn and writer Trish D Chetty paint a candid picture of a dynamic duo who managed to surf the golden wave of 1960s and 1970s rock ‘n’ roll, where musicians and graphic designers were considered artists in a purer, less commercial form. Tracking Thorgerson and Powell’s Cambridge origins through art school and early friendships with bands like Pink Floyd, the documentary is filled to the brim with first-person anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories of how their famous album artwork became an iconoclastic force in music culture.
From the cow photograph used for Atom Heart Mother and the kids’ physics book inspiration for The Dark Side Of The Moon to the floating pig over Battersea Power Station on Animals and the flaming man on Wish You Were Here – it’s a thrill to hear how each Pink Floyd cover was conceived from the people involved. But they’re not the only band who benefited from this artistic tour de force; 10cc, Led Zeppelin and Wings all boast irreverent and inventive Hipgnosis concepts that helped propel the iconography of the music behind the sleeve.
As well as Powell, interviews with Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason and other Hipgnosis clients bolster a visually compelling chronology of their greatest artwork hits without sugar-coating the business and creative frictions that occurred over time and change. Unsurprisingly, egos in the music industry included that of graphic designers. And once the MTV generation arrived, album cover budgets to shoot a sheep lying on a custom-made chaise longue, on a Hawaiian beach, were not getting signed off as much anymore.
Squaring The Circle is a funny, access all areas time capsule to remind us that art doesn’t have to be hanging in the Louvre to be considered a masterpiece. So, maybe dust off those vinyls and put them in a frame.
Superheroes… but make them French
If there was ever a superhero movie to break the cycle of big budget, glossy actioners it’s the bizarre Smoking Causes Coughing. The off-kilter French comedy, written, shot, edited and directed by Quentin Dupieux, follows a team of vigilantes called Tobacco Force tasked by an anthropomorphic rat to protect the world from monstrous threats. Each member (played by actors Gilles Lellouche, Vincent Lacoste, Anaïs Demoustier, Jean-Pascal Zadi and Oulaya Amamra) might take their name from a toxic cigarette ingredient, but they are by no means an endorsement. Tobacco Force is more an irreverent stab at smoking culture.
With kitsch production and costume design seemingly inspired by the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, these quirky avengers are losing their mojo, so they embark on a team-building retreat. Using the flimsiest set-up of campfire stories, the action dips out of their world into mini tales of comedic horror and woe, but with just as much dry humour and gruesome gore.
At under 90 minutes, there really isn’t much to this anthology film, and its droll delivery may not be to everyone’s taste. But if you’re in the market for an unconventional big screen outing, Smoking Causes Coughing might just be worth sparking up for.
Visit our screenings page for our full film schedule across the Houses.