Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Floyd on Film - Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii

Shot in October 1971, Pink Floyd's 3-day residency among the ruins of Pompeii is one of the more idiosyncratic rock performance films of the era. Director Adrian Maben's idea was to discard the look of contemporary concert films - the band on stage intercut with the standard shots of adoring crowds (a la Woodstock or Ziggy Stardust The Motion Picture), and instead capture the Floyd amid the stillness of the Amphitheatre's desolation rows, save for the eerie presence of some 12,000 phantom spectators. There's even something of a Godardian conceit as the director films the crew filming the band, amid the towering arc lights and camera tracks.

The filming at Pompeii was not without its difficulties and power cuts threatened the production, shaving 3 days off the shooting schedule. Luckily the director was able to get three solid performances in the can - "Echoes", "A Saucerful of Secrets", and "One of These Days". The band would later bolster up the running time of the film with performances of "Careful With that Axe Eugene", "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" and "Mademoiselle Nobs" - a variation on Meddle's "Seamus", all filmed in a studio in Paris. Furthermore, a 1974 draft of the film was made which included footage of the band working on Dark Side of the Moon, as well as some irreverent interviews of a band trying to play down their image of serious composers.

A saucerful of Pink Floyd - the opening zoom shot of the band, their equipment and the camera crew
Filming the band in the ancient landscape of Pompeii was an inspired idea as the Floyd and their 20 tonnes of musical and electronic equipment look less like a rock group and more like interstellar space travellers, but the film is nevertheless dated, with some unnecessary multi-screen techniques, and some regrettable sequences of the band performing the Paris tracks against a back projection of Pompeii. Still, the music itself is entirely wonderful. The band had recently finished recordings on Meddle and bookending the film is an excellent rendition in 2 parts of the sprawling side-long track "Echoes". Each performance is arguably better than its vinyl take, and the band's extraordinary version of "A Saucerful of Secrets" is surely one of their finest moments ever.

Universal's 2003 DVD is a good effort but falls short of perfection. The image quality is good, although the DVD struggles with some of the more trickier shots at Pompeii - there's some shimmer in some scenes, but nothing to get upset over. The sound is impressive too - perhaps too much top end but entirely fine. Extras include a short but comprehensive 24-min interview with the director (directed by the band's perennial visualist Storm Thorgerson), plus some galleries of the band's promo artwork. However, Universal have put on the DVD two versions of the film - the original 1972 draft of the film (in its original 1.33 OAR), plus a newly struck director's cut which pads out the film with some bland cosmic visuals, and adds a fake 1.85 matt to the performance footage. One to be avoided, but seeing as Universal have neglected to add the 1974 version the Director's Cut is only way to view the Dark Side of the Moon studio footage (unless selected from the menu as separate chapters). Stick with the original 1972 version. These minor complains aside, for Pink Floyd fans the disc is absolutely essential.

In 1992, The Beastie Boys paid homage to Live At Pompeii with their video for "Gratitude" which was based on film, copying the horizontal tracking shots that snake around the Floyd. The Beastie Boys went so far as to label their speaker cabinets with "Pink Floyd London" as seen on the equipment in the original film.

The late 60's, early 70's were a fruitful time for Pink Floyd and Cinema. In 1968 they appeared on stage in the documentary, Tonite Let's All Make Love In London, and that same year they composed music for the short film The Committee. The following year they recorded the soundtrack for Barbet Schroeder's More. 1970 saw soundtrack duties for Zabriskie Point, and in 1972 they re-teamed with Barbet Schroeder for La Vallée. The band was also set to compose music for Alejandro Jodorowsky's ill-fated Dune, and rumour has it that Stanley Kubrick had considered the band for the music of 2001: A Space Odyssey


  1. Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii is very much a product of it's time, but the film contains some great performances. You're right about the scenes of the band playing in Pompeii. With their elaborate equipment setup and the Pompeii landscape, they could be playing on Mars. I'd love to have this film on Blu-Ray, with a lossless HD audio track.

    If Floyd had done the music for 2001... WOW!

  2. Many thanks for the comment Anthony and welcome ! Yeah, can you imagine Pink Floyd scoring 2001 - what a meeting of minds ! Although I wonder if Roger Waters and Stanley Kubrick could have worked with each other, two artists well known for having it their own way...

  3. This sounds fascinating - and I've been adding some music docs to the video vault - got a Rolling Stones box set not long ago so maybe I'm going to finally become a music guy!

  4. I was actually in Pompeii back in September and it was quite fascinating to walk around the same streets as people trod almost 2000 years ago... Craig, if you're on a Stones trip and you have yet to see it, be sure to catch Gimme Shelter, a gritty documentary about the Stones concert at Altamont in Northern California in 1969 which ended with a Hell's Angel stabbing a member of the audience ("The music that thrilled the world, And the killing that stunned it"). One of the famous nails in the coffin of the 60's...

    1. I am at work and can't see my set - I don't think that one is included. I do want to see that one though!