“King Crimson Being a Way of Doing Things as Opposed to a Set Organism”: Director Toby Amies on His SXSW Doc, In the Court of the Crimson King
When Toby Amies emails me the Vimeo press link to his SXSW-premiering documentary on the band King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King, he appends a list of influences. There’s a documentarian (Ross McElwee), a pseudo-documentarian (Christopher Guest), a narrative filmmaker who is a real King Crimson fan (Vincent Gallo) and then a couple of directors whose impact remained a bit puzzling both before and after seeing the film: Ernst Lubitsch and Sam Peckinpah. But perhaps the cinephile (and King Crimson fan) in me was looking too closely, because after watching In the Court of the Crimson King and speaking to the director, I realized these influences are subtler, more subconscious. Invited by guitarist and band leader Robert Fripp, King Crimson’s sole enduring member amidst multiple personnel changes and musical reinventions, to make a documentary about the storied band on the occasion of their 50th anniversary, Amies knew what he wanted to avoid: filming the band’s Wikipedia. As he followed the band around a number of shows, speaking with its members as well as roadies and fans, Amies acted largely as his own cinematographer and production manager, finding within himself the sort of “small, mobile, independent and intelligent unit” Fripp declared himself as in the days after the band’s 1974 breakup.
That sense of just a man with a camera informs not just the feel of In the Court of the Crimson King but its ideas as well. With so many recent rock documentaries being largely the product of archival research and montage, Amies roots his point-of-view firmly in the present, as he roams backstage corridors, talks with a nun who’s a giant fan, and shoots a random tango performance he encounters walking home one night from a King Crimson show in Poland, the latter a bit of an entr’ acte he scores to the band’s “Moonchild.” Absent windy mythologizing, Amies’s various interviewees provide both historical commentary (Bill Bruford) as well as emotions no less muted for having been carried across decades (Ian McDonald and particularly a pained Discipline-era frontman Adrian Belew, who is still smarting from his departure from the band).
Throughout the doc, King Crimson is positioned by Fripp and musicians as something of a higher calling, the band’s rigorous compositions requiring unyielding focus as well as daily practice. That near-religious dedication becomes truly poignant as drummer Bill Rieflin reveals his stage four colon cancer diagnosis and his decision to spend his time left playing with the band.
Amies’s previous feature, 2013’s The Man Whose Mind Exploded, a feature adaptation of his 2008 BBC Radio 4 program, told the story of Drako Oho Zarharzar, a man who modeled for Salvador Dali and sold drugs to the Rolling Stones but suffers from anteretrograde amnesia, a disorder that prevents him from forming new memories and effectively exiles him to his own past. His other work includes portrait photography, DJ’ing, hosting a Lonely Planet travel series and producing multiple shows for MTV. Surprisingly, before In the Court of the Crimson King he never considered himself a King Crimson fan, and in conversation below we discuss that fact, and why Fripp entrusted the legacy of King Crimson, one of the most under-photographed bands of all time, to his handheld camera. And, of course, that list of influences.
Filmmaker: How did you get involved with this project, and were you given some sort of brief by the band? What sort of freedom did you have in your approach?
Amies: Would it surprise you to know that this is a complicated and idiosyncratic story?
Filmmaker: Not at all.
Amies: I’m from a rural part of England called Vale of Evesham, which is a flood plain. There are a couple of market towns in it, and for a while my parents and Robert and Toyah lived on the same street. So, I just met them socially through my parents. And then when I was making a Radio Four documentary about the process of self archiving, I worked with Robert on that. At some point I sent him The Man Whose Mind Exploded, and he really loved it. We went out for drinks just before Christmas one year, and I told Robert and Toyah that I had received a message on Instagram from somebody who said, “You don’t know me, but I’m part of a sort of small sex cult in San Francisco, and we are all obsessed with the notion of ‘cosmic fuck,’ which a tattoo that Drako had on his chest [in the movie]. It’s this idea of having a sort of erotic and fruitful relationship with the entire universe. Apparently about seven of [the cult members] had all got these tattoos that said ‘cosmic fuck’ written in a strange kind of rune that they developed. I was saying to Robert and Toya how exciting it was to have made a work of art that somebody had such a completely different interpretation of. It’s difficult if a work of art is misinterpreted, but when it’s interpreted in a way you could never have conceived of, then that’s just brilliant. The next day Robert sent me an email and copied David Singleton, the band’s manager, and said, “Can you pop over for a meeting?” It was Christmas Eve, and Robert said, “We have got the 50th anniversary [of King Crimson] coming up, and everybody keeps on wanting us to make a film. I’m not interested in making a conventional rock doc biography, so let’s make Cosmic Fuck, but the ‘fuck’ would be spelled ‘FUKC.’” And so that became, Cosmic FUKC: Prog Rock’s Pond Scum Set to Bum You Out, which was the title of a review they had once gotten in the LA Weekly. Robert said about traditional biographies of bands of King Crimson’s generation that the dead are brought forth but remain unburied. The idea was to avoid it being a lot of old men talking about the good old days, or the bad old days in some people’s cases — to try and make something that was more vital, something that was more in tune with the idea of King Crimson being a way of doing things as opposed to a set organism.
It was quite relief not to have to film the Wikipedia article, you know? Sid Smith has already written an enormous history of the band. So I was going to do my best to capture something that you couldn’t put in a book or a Wikipedia article, and that was something that I just had to find, to be honest. One of the influences for The Man Whose Mind Exploded was Fantastic Voyage.
Filmmaker: The ’60s science fiction film?
Amies: Yes. I love the idea of going inside somebody else to explore their experience from the inside out. And without intellectualizing it too much, that’s what I wanted to do with King Crimson — to give the audience an understanding of what it felt like to be in that band. And I don’t know if I should admit this as a documentarian, but I didn’t do a great deal of research because I wanted to go in with as open a mind as possible. Even if it requires people thinking you’re an idiot, sometimes you’ve gotta ask those really dumb, innocent questions. This is definitely a film made with the fans in mind, but it’s also a film for people who’ve got no idea of what King Crimson is. I have to show them why King Crimson matters, and to do that, I have to show the audience what the King Crimson experience is like both from the point of view of the people who get up every day and do it but also from the point of view of the [concert goers], for whom, as Trey Gunn puts in the film, are there to have a “peak experience.”
Filmmaker: What was your own connection to the band’s music prior to the documentary?
Amies: I was not into the band before starting this work. I was aware of Robert’s work.
Filmmaker: Really? So you were social with Robert but you weren’t a King Crimson listener? Were there other parts of his catalog you knew about?
Amie: A little bit. I mean, I’m a dance DJ of 35 years standing, and I was 13 when punk rock came out. So, my backround is in dancing and punk rock — particularly American indie punk.
Filmmaker: There was the well known “punk vs. prog” thing, Johnny Rotten’s “I hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt and all of that. But Fripp had his work with Bowie and then new wave bands in New York like Talking Heads and Blondie. And then his own new wave dance band, League of Gentlemen. Were you aware of that work?
Amies: Vaguely. I was a big Eno fan, so I was aware of the work with Bowie. But I grew up literally with Rotten and others saying, “Do not have anything to do with these [prog] dinosaurs.” Although, ironically, one of Rotten’s favorite bands was Van der Graf Generator.
Filmmaker: And Can.
Amies: I love Can. So, yes, I was aware of Robert’s work to a degree, but King Crimson never really crossed into my arena. Although having now got an understanding of them, I think is an absolute crime that they’re not listed as one of the greatest post punk bands of all time. The Discipline period band, as far as I’m concerned, definitely holds its own with 23 Skidoo or any of those post punk bands.
Filmmaker: So what was the appeal to you as a filmmaker wanting to go on his own personal exploration of the subject matter? Not being burdened by the history and mythology of the band, what was the object of fascination for you?
Amies: I think I was really fascinated by the principles in operation. Having had dinner with Robert several times, I was aware of his extraordinary intelligence, and there seemed to be something unique about Robert’s approach to music and also about the music that got made as a result of the people that he chose to work with and who chose to work with him. But it’s really important to stress that this is not a documentary about Robert Fripp. Robert has his own practice as a guitarist, through other collaborations, his ambient works. But as Michael Giles makes clear in the documentary, “King Crimson is Robert’s baby, but he needs lots of midwives.” I think there’s something really fascinating about someone [like Robert] who doesn’t particularly want to be the band leader, doesn’t want to be the center of attention. But as Bill [Bruford] doesn’t say in the film, “If you turn all the stage spotlights on you off, you will of course be drawing attention to yourself.” So that’s quite an interesting dynamic already — not necessarily conflict, but potentially conflicted. And I hadn’t considered this until you asked the question, but I’ve always really loved music that puts ideas into effect. As someone who has worshipped at the church of rock and roll for decades now, I do think it should be taken seriously, so [I appreciate] Robert’s idea of King Crimson being a rock and roll orchestra, closer to a classical concert than it is a show. To approach it in such a way that you can have these really sophisticated, spiritually-based ideas and still fucking rock incredibly hard as they do live is a brilliant thing.
Filmmaker: Was your not being a fan, not being obsessive about King Crimson, something that was appealing to Robert?
Amies: I would say almost certainly.
Filmmaker: Were there any rules imposed upon you by the band? Or, conversely, did you set forth any requirements of your own in terms of creative freedom or access?
Amies: There weren’t any immediate rules apparent, but there were dynamics that I needed to be sensitive to when I was filming and they were also making music. Robert is pretty single-minded when he is working. As you saw in the film, there were a couple of instances — although there were many more — when he found my presence quite distracting and uncomfortable. When we were initially editing the film, that was something we sought to make a little bit more of, but it just felt a bit artificial after a while. It’s not the most interesting conflict in the film: I want to make a film and Robert won’t let me. But, you know, the moment you put a camera on something, you change its nature by observing it. So, in many ways, it was fair enough. However, on occasion, it became a bit of a struggle to get necessary material. The live sequences in the film, those came as a result of me saying, “Look, if this is about the music, then I need to see the music. We need to get you to play live for the cameras.” Because, you know, musicians, if they’re peforming for cameras and an audience, they don’t know where to look. So we have short live performance done for an audience of 12., and we’ll release [the whole show] at some point.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about your choice of musical selections. There’s less live performance in the film than I think some people would expect. And you’ve made interesting choices regarding the parts of songs you see. For example, for “Starless” you just show the band playing the middle instrumental portion.
Amies: I suppose that’s for two reasons. One, the first rule of show business is “always leave them wanting more.” But, more importantly, if people hear the songs, they can go and hear the songs. But mostly, the reason the songs are truncated the way they are is because I’m using [the songs] to demonstate certain ideas and dynamics that are being spoken about in the film. So, for example, when Sister Dana is spraying the orchids, that’s working rhythmically with the opening riff of “Discipline.” And that also speaks to the indefinably spiritual aspect to King Crimson’s music. She’s there to add a sort of higher authority, in my opinion, than a mere music journalist talking about the dynamic between the musicians — the idea that listening to what the other musicians are playing is similar to what someone would do if they were doing a communal prayer liturgy. And it echoes what Robert says later [in the documentary] about a musician’s ego — this idea of, “I may have the most beautiful voice in the convent, but it’s not my time to sing now, so I’m going to shut up and let somebody else play.” Also, I think there’s a joy in having a nun in a rock-and-roll movie.
When I sent you that thing about [being influenced by various directors], and I put Lubitsch in there, I was [later wondering], why the fuck did I put that in there? So pretentious! But what I love about him and, and I came to this realization through Billy Wilder, is that thing of just letting the audience make up their own mind, you know? Don’t bash them over the head the whole time with, “It’s this, it’s this.” And with regard to [the musical sequence from] “Red,” I just love that idea of a sort of coiled spring, and that, for me operates as the vaguest metaphor for the amount of pressure that all of the musicians in King Crimson find themselves under. But crucially, I don’t think it’s necessarily pressure that Robert puts them under, although that’s the shorthand for what King Crimson is like. I think it’s pressure that people put themselves under, and the closest analogy for me is my experience making this film because, and it’s important to stress, I’ve been given absolute creative freedom. It’s funny, even if does well, I can’t imagine anybody giving me a signficant sum of money to make a documentary where they say, “Do you what you think is best?” You know?
Filmmaker: You mentioned the influences you cited for me in your email, which was quite a list. Could I ask you to explain some of them, starting with Sam Peckinpah? Was he simply because it’s kind of about a band of guys?
Amie: It’s the violence.
Filmmaker: The emotional violence?
Amie: Yeah. The emotional violence, the sort of sturm and drang of the whole thing. It’s why with “Starless” [the screen] goes all red. You can imagine Sam Peckinpah’s film about the making of Red, can’t you? I guess my reference was slightly glib, but some directors have an innate sense of extreme drama. But obviously the big [inspiration] is Ross McElwee. It must be very evident how influential Sherman’s March has been to me both in terms of the persona behind the camera but also the sense that you are ostensibly doing one thing, which is making a rock doc, but then making a film about the making and meaning of music. And that’s a conclusion I only came to once I pretty much finished the film. It’s also a film about human beings, and there’s obviously a family dynamic at play in the band, a complicated one. It was just very challenging to describe the actual nature of my experience of that band, both in its past and present iteration, while still making something that put a lot of humanity on the screen there.
Filmmaker: I want to ask you about one more reference: Buffalo 66. Vincent Gallo is a big King Crimson fan, and he put “Moonchild” in that film. Christina Ricci does that incredible dance to it in the bowling alley scene.
Amies: And then we have that tango scene. I made a decision with the film to create this world that exists slightly out of time and space. There’s the stage, there’s the auditorium, and then there’s the backstage, and we don’t really spend a lot of time establishing when and where any of those things are. There aren’t many title cards, and there aren’t are any location-based title cards. The only place where I sort of slightly regret that is in that [tango] sequence. I was walking home from one of their early shows in Posan in Poland, and I just saw that [dance] and filmed it. And every editor who looked at it wanted to use it, and “Moonchild” works perfectly. And it’s also a gentle way of paying tribute to that incredible scene in Buffalo 66. I think it’s really important in a film, particularly a musical film, to have a sense of cadence. As you know, there’s very little archive out there of King Crimson playing, so I had to come up with these slightly inventive ways of getting music in there with the available pictures.
Filmmaker: As you say, it’s a movie about family, but it’s also a movie about aging and mortality. It does what rock docs do in terms of examining personnel changes, genealogies, histories, but at the same time it does so in a way that is very much in the present because the emotions behind all of these things are still roiling, current. There’s so much unresolved stuff in the interviews with Adrian Belew, for example. I also hadn’t realized Ian McDonald had just very recently passed away. There are certainly very heightened emotions in his interview.
Amies: You know, my first film is in large part about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, and so I carried those concerns into this one. I had mixed feelings about using that interview, but Ian speaks so candidly about his time there, and I thought there was something very brave about how he speaks — such passion against the cold wall in terms of Robert’s response.
Filmmaker: Well, McDonald did come back to play on Red, and this speaks to something I thought about while watching the film. Which is, how much of Robert is Robert, and how much is a persona that he’s playing with? Because, you know, beneath this kind of austere exterior there’s something tender underneath. It must have been very difficult physically for Bill Rieflin on those tours. He was originally one of the three drummers, but then he stayed with the band and played keyboards, something less strenuous. You feel that from Robert there was an element of care involved. And the quotes from Robert after he died are beautiful. So I agree with you that there’s a family-like aspect to the band. Going back to Adrian, who is still smarting from not being involved anymore, I got the sense that in Robert’s mind even if they’ve ex band members have fallen out they’re still part of it, you know?
Amies: Absolutely. With Adrian, it’s all very complicated, so it’s better to quote Robert, who referred to him as “a member of King Crimson who just wasn’t active as a member of King Crimson.” That’s not in the movie, and you can view it as a statement of extreme diplomacy, but also I think it’s true. You can only have so many voices in the film, and also, for mortal, sad reasons, there are people who are not around to speak for themselves anymore. So there is a point at which everybody in the current band, or the people we had access to, become archetypes, in a way, in the sense that Tony Levin speaks for bass players in King Crimson. Adrian Belew speaks for songwriters and guitarists in King Crimson, and so on.
Filmmaker: The one exception I might argue with you with is one of my favorite interviewees in the film, the drummer Bill Bruford. I’m not sure he speaks for all drummers in the current edition of the band. And if there is a controversial element to the latest King Crimson, it may be the three drummers. That’s a subject you don’t go into very directly, the “why” of that.
Amies: Well, I say to Michael Giles, “It takes three drummers to match you.” But that’s as far as I go, yes. That’s because of a lot of things. You see, I made this film twice. The first film was called Cosmic Fuck, aand it was basically all of the best bits of the footage I’d amassed put together in this way that sometimes worked beautifully — it had these lovely juxtapositions — but was too much. It was almost like watching TikTok or something, and not sustaining for an hour and a half. You needed, if not a narrative thread, a reason to keep watching. As a consequence, I’m acutely aware that there are all these bits I wish I could have put in the film because they speak volumes but they don’t fit into a broader narrative context. On the second iteration of the film, I worked with a very experienced documentary editor, Ali Huddleston, and he helped me get a more coherent and longer lasting narrative out of the whole thing. So there were lots of bits and pieces that, that we missed out on. And the broader point about the three drummers is that initially there wasn’t much to learn about the human condition from the concept of having three drummers. I know that sounds really pretentious, but I want this film to be heavy. There was, though, a really nice sequence where the three drummers are rehearsing and talking with each other, but it was kind of punishing — listening to people talking as they are drumming in a small rehearsal space.
Filmmaker: Were there people you contacted who did not want to be part of the doc?
Amies: No. When I spoke to Robert initially, I asked him, “Is there anybody you don’t want me to interview?” And he said, “No, get the really angry ones, if you can!” I didn’t interview Gordon Haskell partly because it was pretty obvious that it would just be invective. There’s a lot of bad blood there, as I understand. I wish I’d interviewed Pete Giles, and I still have the opportunity to do that for the DVD extras and for micro docs coming out on DGM [the King Crimson website].
Filmmaker: I’ve always loved Bill Bruford’s drumming, and I didn’t realize until looking him up after watching the film that he basically retired from drumming at age 59.
Amies: He had this tiny, beautiful jazz kit in his office, and I tried so hard to get him to play so I could film it.
Filmmaker: As I read, he’s teaching now, and to go back to this idea of being in and out of the band, I somehow didn’t feel that his choice not to perform these days was opposed to what you captured in the film, which was Bill Rieflin deciding to use the time he had left to be in the band. They have each made choices, and they are part of the same universe of choices, if that makes sense.
Amies: Yes, and I think Trey Gunn fits in that area too. Nothing against anybody else who has played in King Crimson, but those three I would call “grownups” in terms of how they approach music. They have an ability to step away from the process. There’s that mindfulness thing, isn’t there? By being aware of your thoughts, you can sort of go, “Why am I thinking that way?” I think those three guys can see outside of [themselves] a bit. They’re very useful in the documentary as almost like a chorus because they have a level of objectivity about King Crimson.
Did you like the film?
Filmmaker: Yes I did. I was quite moved by it. The film addresses, in its own deceptive way, all the big issues. There’s grief and loss in the film, and the decisions about how you are going to live your life, the things you think back on, legacy issues…
Amies: There’s a reason it starts with a metronome and the skull. Not the subtlest of images, but it seemed ironic and appropriate for the idea of people who are close to death arguing about minute increments of time. An alternative title for the film was “Time Lords.” There was a version I wanted to have where there are all these corridors, a backstage universe, that they’re all trapped in. I wanted to have the camera keep coming around the corner into another discussion: “No, no, no, it’s the 15th B in the fourth bar!” A metaphor for our greatest struggle, which is with, or against, time.