“Vinyl is the working man’s art collection.” That’s Noel Gallagher, one of a dozen rock-and-roll superstars enlisted to tell an oral history of album art in Anton Corbijn’s new documentary, Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis). Hipgnosis co-founder Storm Thorgerson, AKA Stormy, is at the helm, aided by archival footage of his late lifetime collaborator Aubrey “Po” Powell, a cantankerous genius described in the film as “a man who couldn’t take yes for an answer.” Corbijn, himself a visual artist embedded in the music world, pries stunning anecdotes from his legendary lineup.
Stormy, a meticulous photographer, and Po, a tsunami of ideas, started with nothing but a penchant for graphic design and a fortuitous friendship with the members of Pink Floyd before they were Pink Floyd. The pair formed Hipgnosis, the design studio responsible for basically every iconic album cover ever, through a series of unbelievable accidents. Roman Polanski just happened to film Repulsion in their apartment building, and just happened to ditch his lighting equipment in their hallway. Their first studio just happened to house an abandoned piano, which just happened to be worth thousands. Pink Floyd et al. were on parallel rags-to-riches tracks. And by the end of this blessed journey, Stormy and Po occupied the frontlines of documenting that absurd peak of rock-and-roll excess.
Squaring the Circle is a classic talking-heads documentary propelled in great part by the stories behind each album cover. Paul McCartney flew a statue to the highest peak on earth only to snag a photograph that looks like a toy on a pile of salt? Pink Floyd ground every plane at Heathrow with a giant pig-shaped balloon? 10cc drugged a sheep? These would be spoilers if not for the heaps of other hedonist and heartwarming accounts that fill the film, tales testifying to a collaborative style of artmaking that unfolded over the slow, painstaking time required to make magic. Or, to use Stormy’s word, “alchemy.”