If Jim Morrison is rock music’s Lizard King then certainly Robert Fripp is progressive rock’s Crimson King.
“In the Court of the Crimson King” celebrated its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on Monday, March 14. Directed by Toby Amies the documentary tracks King Crimson from birth to its present incarnation.
One thing is certain: this film, along with King Crimson, is all about Robert Fripp.
Fripp guided the band through an evolution that encompasses technology and social structure. Look how much music has changed from 1969 to the present.
That’s not to say that Amies avoids the elephant talk that is the acrimony between Fripp and former members of the band.
That’s a list that includes Michael Giles and Adrian Belew. Greg Lake the original bassist and lead vocalist on arguably the best King Crimson LP – “In the Court of the Crimson King” – passed in 2016.
Other participants, current members at the time the documentary was shot are not as contentious. One musician has stage four cancer and will pass before the film ends.
The crux seems to be Fripp at odds with the filmmaker in philosophical terms of what the film should be about.
The conclusion illustrates the conflict between subject and filmmaker as Fripp berates Amies after missing a performance. “You missed everything. It was a determining and critical and pivotal scene where the history and the origins and the future of King Crimson were presented and you went away rendering this DVD or whatever it is ineffectual and of little use to the world.”
King Crimson began in 1969 with an incredible line-up that consisted of Fripp, Ian McDonald, Greg Lake, Giles with an LP that included the ultimate dystopian rocker “21st Century Schizoid Man.”
“In the Court of the Crimson King” isn’t a performance doc where we see extended versions of their music. Although there is a great British television clip of the group performing “Cat Food.”
Fripp and the original band come to a dissolving point and he carries the banner for the next five decades.
All of the current bands members get their say so, most prominently Bill Rieflin who died during filming. Rieflin also played with REM, Ministry and other influential groups. Rieflin gives some of the most important insights during the film into why artists do what they must do.
Perhaps not ironically Amies ignores pre-King Crimson efforts like the forerunner 1968 pop album “The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp.” Amies also sidesteps the McDonald and Giles self-titled 1970 album, which is arguably as integral to the formation of progressive rock as King Crimson or Soft Machine.
Similarly, Adrian Belew laments his time in the band where he thought he was an equal member only to learn he was a hired hand. To hear Fripp tell it Belew wasn’t exactly a team player.
Others fare better like original member Mel Collins who rejoined the band in the last decade. Collins is seen signing autographs for a fan before a show on a number of LPs including a Joan Armatrading record.
Rock ’n roll drumming was re-invented when Fripp turned King Crimson into an ensemble with three drummers. The concert footage of the current band takes place across continents including a ancient amphitheater.
Fripp is all about discipline. He rehearses every day regardless of whether he is playing that night. As he explains to Amies in one of his more candid moments that just as an athlete must constantly exercise he as a musician must constantly evolve his technique through daily practice.
“The audience may only realize the difference over the course of a year but for me it’s a daily transition.”
Consciousness is a continuous goal in “In the Court of the Crimson King.”
During the film’s most prescient scene Fripp recalls his first meeting with his spiritual and psychological mentor John Bennett, himself a student of philosopher Gurdjieff.
Fripp pauses in silence for a full minute-and-a-half between his words recalling his first meeting with Bennett. It’s a cinematic silence that equals the din that dominates most other scenes of this amazing musical documentary.