Written by: Robin C. Farrell | June 7th, 2023
Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) (Anton Corbijn, 2022) 3 out of 4 stars.
The music industry, like many of those associated with the arts, is an ever-changing one. Each generation brings new voices and perspectives, new technology and styles, and thus has a resulting impact on the world around it. Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) delves into a particular point in music history: the pre-punk rock era in which some of the most iconic albums were created. Highlighted throughout the film are the records of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Paul McCartney, and the company that produced those covers: Hipgnosis.
At the center of the narrative is the relationship between Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, the founders of Hipgnosis. Their friendship was the foundation of the company and their work, from the overarching vision to the miniscule detail. Despite Storm’s reputation as being consistently, unapologetically rude to everyone he met (an opinion shared and openly stated by nearly everyone in the film), it’s also agreed that he was a genius, and the teamwork between him and Po was evident and infectious to those around them. That aspect carries this film, even beyond the behind-the-scenes stories of the bands and musicians themselves and how the album art was created. Oftentimes, it wasn’t nearly as glamorous or interesting as one might expect.
In many ways, Squaring the Circle is a straightforward presentation, almost bare-bones at times. However, director Anton Corbijn (Spirits in the Forest) uses that simplicity to create a laser focus on a specific time and place. There’s a great deal of emphasis used to describe the handmade process of the photography, the graphic design, and the text of these projects. Meanwhile, the surprises of the film largely stem from the influences and creative direction, or lack thereof. In addition to the artistic craft required, the covers are also a source of marketing. The question being asked isn’t so much, “How do we actively reflect the lyrics and the themes of the music?” but rather, “How do we grab attention? How do we make an impact?”
While a fascinating insight into this particular era, it is also something of a limitation. By not expanding very far into how the industry changed after the punk movement, by not further exploring much of Storm or Po’s lives before Hipgnosis, the perspective can feel a bit narrow. There’s the occasional reference to our current age of streaming platforms, but no real discussion of music videos as an art form, let alone the shifts that followed into the ‘90s and beyond.
As a result, the ending is a bit abrupt, although, given other aspects of the more personal story, that is, in some ways, the point. Ultimately, if you’re keen on a broader, more in-depth exploration of the music business itself or its impact on that or any other generation, then Squaring the Circle might land a little lightly. If the late ‘60s and early ‘70s hold a particular interest for you, however, then this film will likely appeal and satisfy.