'Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)' Is a Flat Take on Music's Most Iconic Album Covers

Directed by Anton Corbijn

Starring Aubrey "Po" Powell, Storm Thorgerson, Paul McCartney, David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Peter Gabriel, Noel Gallagher, Peter Saville, Glen Matlock

Photo courtesy of levelFILM

BY Tobias JegPublished Jun 9, 2023

Anton Corbijn is primarily known as a maestro of music videos (Depeche Mode, U2, Arcade Fire, etc.), but the Dutchman is back to making music biopics with Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis), a documentary about the English art collective behind some of the most iconic album covers of the 1970s. The subject matter is niche, but fans of that era and genre should find this interesting.

Hipgnosis's tale begins in 1964 when a pair of self-described scoundrels, Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey "Po" Powell, meet at a party in Cambridge, becoming fast friends and frequent users of psychedelic drugs. They're quick to credit LSD for their visionary ideas, but they're also quick to get down to business, as they were fortunate to have opportunities to work with Pink Floyd from the band's outset. In showbiz, they say it's better to be lucky than good, but these guys were both.

There's ample rock royalty (Paul McCartney, Roger Waters, Peter Gabriel) providing barroom commentary, and despite Thorgerson having passed away in 2013, Corbijn does a clever job of making him feel alive and involved in this story. The real hero is Noel Gallagher, who comes across both lucid and wise, with his relatively younger perspective bridging the gap between eras and providing a Gen X take on these Boomer affairs. He gushes about the work of Hipgnosis from the vantage of an uncultured working class kid, and passionately explains, "We'd sit and stare at the artwork. ... Vinyl is the poor-man's art collection."

It's impressive what the Hipgnosis team created given the available technology. Not only were they coming up with absurd, acid-fueled concepts, they had to pull it off with practical effects. There was no Photoshop or green screen to help realize these wacky visuals. Take Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, for example: in order to create a picture of a flaming businessman, said businessman literally needs to be set on fire. And because a perfect shot for the album cover is needed, this poor stuntman spent hours getting set ablaze and was singed throughout the process. The film thoroughly details these extravagant photo shoots that would sometimes require flights via the Concord or a budget of $50,000.

But the big egos and excesses of rock 'n' roll did not resonate with teenagers of the tumultuous late '70s, and the handwriting was on, ahem, The Wall. One of my favourite scenes is when they detail a run-in with Johnny Rotten — himself a budding iconoclast — where he badmouths Pink Floyd to the faces of the Hipgnosis crew.

There are conspicuous gaps in the story, as there's no mention of the lewd (and by today's standards, highly cancellable) acts that have always swirled around this music scene. They do confess, "London was lawless in the '60s, and we were a part of that lawlessness," But ultimately, they whistle right past that minefield.  

Viewers may get the impression that Hipgnosis were responsible for all the visuals of these bands, but they didn't actually design all of Pink Floyd's album art. That breakup, though, is conveniently glazed over. Meanwhile, Zeppelin fans have always been fascinated with the lore behind the band's "Zoso" logo and the other mysterious symbols associated with the band's aesthetic, but there's no mention of it here. That imagery is credited to guitarist Jimmy Page, who is practically nonexistent in the documentary and remains mum about the fantasy sigils. Alright then, keep your secrets.

The movie ends as it begins, with dramatic scenes of Powell carrying an art portfolio as though it were a burdensome bindle. And despite it being only 90-ish minutes in length, Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) also feels surprisingly heavy.

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