wed 24/07/2024

In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50 review - Robert Fripp's iron claw | reviews, news & interviews

In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50 review - Robert Fripp's iron claw

In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50 review - Robert Fripp's iron claw

Penetrating doc about the prog band's fraught journey under its leader

King Crimson (from l to r): Mel Collins, Tony Levin, Jeremy Stacey, Gavin Harrison, the late Bill Rieflin, Jakko Jakszyk, Robert Fripp. (Not in photo: Pat Mastelotto)

Whether grinding or eerie, bellicose or plaintive, the exquisite jazz- and classical-infused prog rock dirges disgorged by King Crimson over the last 54 years stand apart from the more accessible sounds made by their illustrious peers, including Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Yes, Genesis, Curved Air, and ELP. Given the discomfiting aesthetic of Crimson’s music – a fulminating anti-panacea, relentlessly modernistic – is it any wonder there was much misery in its making?

Watching Toby Amies’s documentary In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50 is an enthralling and often amusing experience. It’s also disconcerting if you labour under the illusion that the people who make the music you love enjoy each other’s company while they’re making it, perhaps forging spiritual bonds.

Assigned to make the film by Robert Fripp, the band’s leader, lead guitarist, and only ever-present member, on the occasion of the 2019 anniversary, Amies shot most of it on the road during a pre-Covid concert tour. He must have gleaned early on that the story’s inherent drama resided in Fripp’s autocratic control of the group. It becomes clear very quickly that Fripp has suffered for his art and has made his bandmates suffer, too.

What emerges is a portrait of a martinet and ascetic – a cold-showerer and four-hours-a-day practicer, no less – whose intolerance of the perceived shortcomings of his bandmates, both musical and personal, led him to berate and eventually oust many of them. 

Until the death in March 2020 of 59-year-old Bill Rieflin, then one of Crimson’s four drummers, the lineup of seven (latterly eight) musicians had been stable since 2014. Rieflin’s passing – which he confronts with formidable stoicism on film – reduced the band to Fripp; saxophonist and flautist Mel Collins, who was a pivotal member in the early ‘70s; bassist Tony Levin; singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk; and drummers Gavin Harrison, Patrick Mastelotto, and Jeremy Stacey. Crimson’s history had hitherto been marked by constant ruptures and hiatuses as original members Greg Lake, Michael Giles, Ian MacDonald, and Pete Sinfield departed, followed, in due course, by Gordon Haskell, Andy McCullough, Ian Wallace, Boz Burrell, John Wetton, Jamie Muir, David Cross, and Trey Gunn.

Drummer Bill Bruford, who played in three different Crimsons in three different decades, is philosophical about his tenures in the band. But lyricist and artistic director Sinfield, who appears in one brief interview clip, is scathing about Fripp (pictured above), as Fripp is about him. In his interview, the sax and mellotron wizard McDonald, who died in 2022, apologises to Fripp for leaving the band after it had recorded its epochal debut, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969). It’s clear their 50-year separation didn't assuage McDonald’s sorrow.

When, in 2014, Fripp convened a new lineup for tours and live recordings of material from the entire Crimson catalogue, he excluded Adrian Belew. The logic must have been that the American singer-lyricist-guitarist, a member from 1981 to 2009, would have been ill-suited to playing songs from the seven albums that predated his joining – arguably the quintessential Crimson music. Collins hints, however, that Belew’s rock star posturing was anathema to Fripp, the least showy of performers. Belew tries but fails to hide his bitterness.

Rock groups are heightened experiments in social Darwinism. As Fripp rules King Crimson, Ian Anderson rules Jethro Tull, firing bandmates at will. Genesis was always Tony Banks’s band. Roger Waters took over Pink Floyd at the time of The Wall (1979) and went to court to stop his old mates using the group's name when they relaunched it without him in the mid-1980s.

Fripp’s conversations with Amies on camera suggest he is less interested in power for power’s sake than driven by his obsessive perfectionism. His ex-colleagues are guarded in their complaints. Collins allows Fripp was “very mean” to him during their first stint together, adding that Fripp has since mellowed, which explains the cohesion of the last nine years (not cutting new albums probably helped). Yet Collins, a gentle presence in the film, still sounds nervous when admitting to a bandmate after a gig that he played a wrong note when his finger slipped during a song. 

The most revelatory moment comes when Fripp pauses while recounting to Amies a fleeting conversation he had at a Sherborne retreat with JG Bennett, a month before the New Age philosopher and disciple of Gurdjieff died in December 1974. This pause is as haunting as it is pregnant – it’s so long and Fripp’s struggle is so private, so emotional, you wonder if you should look away.

Whether or not his enlightenment entailed an exegesis, Fripp’s studying with Bennett intensified his discipline – the music changed – and seemingly sanctioned his disciplinarianism. “One of the lines I remember,” he says, “is, ‘If you’re unpleasant and dislike people, it is no obstacle to work.’ Yes, this man is speaking to me!” 

For many years, Fripp’s unforgiving rigour made the King Crimson kitchen too hot a place for many talented musicians. They got out of it, or were forcibly ejected, but not before helping to progress that gorgeously tortured sound. 

The overarching message of Amies’s superb documentary is that the band’s legacy and the pleasure the music gives somehow justified the pain felt on all sides. The hilarious final sequence – chosen to show that the director himself didn’t escape Fripp’s seethingly articulated anger – compounds the fascination. Is there still time for a sequel – and a new King Crimson double album?

Fripp’s struggle is so private, so emotional, you wonder if you should look away


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Is this having a cinema release or is it via Netflix?

It has been released to cinemas, and I believe there is also a DVD/Blu-Ray available. Here are the remaining cinema screenings at present.

I’m so glad for all the information.

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