There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Brian Eno: 1971-1977 - The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
If you look at any list of the best albums from the ‘70s, no matter what publication put it out, you’re going to see the fingerprints of one man on a disproportionate number of entries. We are talking, of course, about Brian Eno. His production on David Bowie’s Low alone would get him past the pearly gates of rock and roll heaven, but add on Eno’s work as Roxy Music’s synth specialist and position behind the boards for the Talking Heads and Devo (to say nothing of his solo albums and ambient music) and it may start to seem impossible that one guy could make such an indelible mark over the span of so few years. Somehow, despite his monolithic amount of influential output (which is still piling up, mind you) he has escaped the documentary treatment until Ed Haynes’s excellent Brian Eno: 1971-1977 - The Man Who Fell to Earth rectified that crime just a couple of years back.
While the shadow that Eno’s legacy casts might seem imposingly long, The Man Who Fell to Earth thankfully breaks everything into digestible chunks and never feels in a rush to get to the next phase in Eno’s career, which is nice. I don’t think I would qualify any of Eno’s work as “difficult” for a novice, but get even a little into his more avant garde albums and a helping hand can certainly kick start deeper appreciation. Haynes’s film isn’t much to look at, with an aesthetic that seems to be borrowed liberally from Ancient Aliens, but the cast of interviewees are all top notch and rage from former bandmates and biographers to legendary critic Robert Christgau. Oddly notable: the time frame (“1971-1977”) is adhered to more strictly than I’ve ever seen before from a music doc. Practically zero time is spent on Eno’s childhood, and we hit the ground running right into his glam beginnings with Roxy Music. The upside is that we get to grouse around in the less-traveled sections of Eno’s career, including the Ambient albums and his time spent as a kraut-rocker. The downside, though, is that we leave off right as he’s moving to New York where he’ll make a huge splash as a producer and general tastemaker for the C.B.G.B. scene.
Adding to his otherworldliness, Eno was miraculously able to singlehandedly turn synthesizers into the focal point of a rock band, making them downright edgy, upstaging Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry in the early years of that group. My understanding of punk rock was that it was a reaction to the pomposity of prog, and as such I don’t think I ever considered the possibility of a punk ethos to be found among those walls of modular synths, but Eno is the exception to the rule. Years before Sid Vicious started playing the bass because it was there, Eno did more or less the equivalent with synthesizers, eschewing the stodgy route that trapped groups like Pink Floyd. Teaching himself, he embodied the punk rock “Fuck you I do what I want” spirit while maintaining a comparably higher standard of cleanliness than even the most recently washed Sex Pistol.
Watching The Man Who Fell to Earth it’s difficult to not walk away with a profound awareness that Brian Eno was almost literally not of this world. Yeah, the title is swiped from the film that David Bowie’s Low took it’s iconic album cover from, but for real it’s inhuman how Eno is able to perceive the world as a series of concepts, and music is just the language by which he has chosen to speak to us in. Others have certainly come before and applied majestic frameworks to their musical approaches, but Eno made it marketable. Look no further than Eno’s deck of cards he called “Oblique Strategies” (co-created with painter Peter Schmidt) for evidence that his means were as much an end unto themselves as his actual music was. The original set of Strategies consisted of 113 cards that featured koan-style phrases designed to help break creative deadlock like “Honour thy error as a hidden intention”, “Only one element of each kind”, and (my favorite) “Ask your body”. When you hit a wall, pull one at random and draw inspiration. Concept: commodified!
While Eno channeled these more abstract ideas into his work to varying degrees, the results still sold, and even more remarkably the they never felt compromised by their commercial appeal. One of the interviewers puts Eno’s four-album run during this period, Here Come the Warm Jets / Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) / Another Green World / Before and After Science on the same pedestal of the Beatles’ legendary quadrilogy of Help / Rubber Soul / Revolver / Sgt. Pepper, and by that point in the film it’s hard to disagree.