Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) movie review (2023)

As one figure in this documentary directed by Anton Corbijn notes, doing this, in a sense, rendered the album title almost literal. If you did take off the shrink wrap, the cover image, a photograph on what looked like a Hollywood studio backlot (because it was) depicting two men shaking hands, greeted you. One of the men was on fire. A postcard inside the sleeve showed a pair of legs sticking out of a body of water as if capturing a perfect dive at a high shutter speed. But, of course, it was a stunt swimmer standing on his head underwater. The photographer, Aubrey “Po” Powell, recalls that he still gets goosebumps thinking of taking that shot.

Powell co-founded Hipgnosis, the design firm that defined and redefined album cover art from the psychedelic sixties through more indulgent and decadent times. Its other founder, Storm Thorgerson, who died in 2013, was the subject of a 2011 documentary called “Taken By Storm,” which I haven’t seen. But this account, while at a disadvantage due to Thorgerson’s absence, has a leg up due to director Corbijn’s keen sense of visual relevance—prior to becoming a film director, he was a rock photographer of high distinction—and his professional connections, which likely enabled him to get fresh interviews not just with the Pink Floyd members who were in the prior documentary, but additional heavy hitters like Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, Noel Gallagher (not a Hipgnosis client, but here fulfilling the role usually played by Bono in such docs, that is, “Mr. Contemporary Context”) and more.

Shot in the black and white that Corbijn favors in his still photography (and which he used for his debut feature “Control,” about the doomed Joy Division singer Ian Curtis), except, of course, when it breaks out the dazzling color work done by Hipgnosis itself, “Squaring the Circle” makes the still-living Powell its focus and fulcrum. He first appears with a giant Hipgnosis portfolio tied to his back by a rope—his legacy and the weight he’s gonna carry a long time. HE tells the story in personal terms. Moving to London in his late teens, he’s attracted to a house nearby where the people are drifting in and out are the most interesting that he’s ever seen. Eventually, he gets the gumption to go in. It’s a crash pad, and among the crashers are Syd Barrett and Roger Waters and Storm Thorgerson. Mostly they’re sitting around getting stoned and listening to jazz records. But soon, they set about creating. Syd and Roger form Pink Floyd. Storm and “Po” study fine art and photography at the Royal Academy. The musical friends ask the graphic friends to concoct artwork for an album cover. Influenced by pop art and psychedelics, the duo concocts the cover for Floyd’s second album, A Saucerful of Secrets.