IFI Documentary Festival | In the Court of the Crimson King covers 50 Years of Prog-Rock Royalty
King Crimson awaits in perpetual potentiality. All one has to do, according to Bill Rieflin, is play the right note at the right time. If this makes being in the band sound easy, allow me to recount a short anecdote. Bill Bruford, who drummed with Crimson in three stints between 1972 and 1997, claims to have no idea what the album Red is about. This despite the fact that, according to bandleader Robert Fripp, he played so well on it. The drummer claims that Fripp has in common with Miles Davis the ability to gather interesting musicians into a room to produce stellar music – if only they don’t kill each other first.
Marking Crimson’s 50th anniversary, In the Court of the Crimson King is both more and less than what the title promises. There is a smattering of archival footage, pulled from an array of sources familiar to fans (Hyde Park and the Beat-Club appear). However, the documentary is composed primarily of footage of the band on tour in 2019. And while members from previous iterations of the band are interviewed – founding members Michael Giles and Ian McDonald contribute, as does Jamie Muir (oh, to have had more Muir in Crimson) – their reflections are contemporaneous to the anniversary. In framing the documentary within the present, director Toby Amies strikes an inspired chord. One in tune with the band’s philosophy.
Or should I say with Fripp’s philosophy, for the band – and the film – is undeniably suffused with his musings on life. One must abandon the question of what King Crimson is in favour of personal presence, an engagement with music as a vehicle for silence. Fripp’s thinking is mystical and disciplined. Tony Levin admits to being initially frustrated by this call to discipline. Trey Gunn likened being in the band to having “a low-grade infection.” Ian McDonald left in part because he couldn’t bear the music to which they subjected listeners. These comments are not unrelated to Fripp’s methods. If he sounds irascible, I assure you that he is.
Despite the frustrations, most of the musicians who appear speak highly of their experience. Mel Collins, in his second stint with Crimson, says he is freer now than in any other group he’s played with. Even Adrian Belew, who felt betrayed by his ousting from the group, proclaims his respect for Fripp and Crimson. The tone of the film is too often giddily reverential to Robert, not least in the foregrounding of Bill Rieflin and Jakko Jakszyk, the favourite son and a life-long fan.
Rieflin, who died in March 2020, has an easy rapport with the camera. Much of the runtime is given to his reflections on his place in the band. When the film was shot, he was dealing with late-stage colon cancer. This lends an unavoidable air of the end of life, generated likewise by the advancing ages of most of the subjects. The film is not quite death-haunted, but it is hard to avoid encroaching mortality in a band whose history spans half a century.
While it is fascinating to hear how King Crimson works, Toby Amies leaves something to be desired in the image. Interviews with former members are ably composed, but the footage taken of the current group on tour has the unmistakable framing of a video diary. The camera is seemingly always at the chest of the operator, pointed up at the subject. That Amies is often trailing his interviewees further suggests a critical afterthought, of pursuing a line of questioning few seem bothered to answer.
There are also dangling threads, such as a nun pontificating on the spirituality of the music. To link this to Fripp’s mysticism is both beside the point and uninteresting. It demonstrates the wide appeal of Crimson’s music, but this is better accomplished in the short section wherein Amies turns his attention towards concert attendees. What is lacking in his image is present here, as the face and comportment of spectators who do not know they are being watched reveals more than words ever could.
What In the Court of the Crimson King left me with is a contradiction, articulated by Belew. If King Crimson is about being present in the music, in the disciplined generation of a shared experience, why is it that they have not written any new songs since 2003? The back catalogue is immense and improvisatory, the setlist and execution changing with each performance. However, whatever is corralled in these performances is, if Belew is taken at his word, old hat. What is progressive music if not constant evolution? King Crimson is the finest demonstration of this tendency. Listen to Lark’s Tongues in Aspic and Discipline and you will have an idea of the permutations the band has taken. It is impossible to speculate towards what shape a new King Crimson album would take. It is likely we will never get one. The King Crimson that awaits in perpetual potentiality falls into the silence from which music arises.