Documenting a Musical Outsider

Scott Walker is something less than a household name in America, even to serious music fans. But that might be about to change — if queer filmmaker Stephen Kijak (Cinemania, Never Met Picasso) and actor Gale Harold (Queer as Folk) have anything to say about it.

I spoke with Kijak and Harold last month at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where their new documentary about the reclusive musical genius, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, had its North American premiere. Harold was the film’s associate producer and one of its earliest supporters.

You may never have heard of Scott Walker, but you’ve probably been under his spell — at least second-hand. After turning his back on U.K. pop stardom in the ’60s when he split from his band, the Walker Brothers, at the height of their popularity, he started a solo career that moved ever deeper into experimentation and obscurity. Along the way, he brought the work of Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel into vogue and influenced artists including David Bowie (who executive produced the film), Brian Eno, Alison Goldfrapp, Sting, Dot Allison and a long list of other musical luminaries, most of whom couldn’t agree fast enough to be interviewed for the documentary.

In a music-centric interview that lasted more than an hour, Kijak told, "I read an article once that said Scott Walker is Judy Garland for the gays who grew up writing poetry and wearing black turtlenecks." He laughed, then went on more seriously: "Scott is the benchmark for living an alternative lifestyle. He is uncompromising against anyone telling him ‘this is how it’s supposed to be.’ He has one vision of himself, and he’s expressing it through music."

Walker’s code isn’t only for musicians, Kijak insists. "It holds for anybody, in any pursuit in life that you can in some way think of as creative — even the construction of your own identity."

Kijak and Harold, without whom Kijak says the film would never have been made, first met at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. The two men discovered they shared an appreciation of — some might call it an obsession with — Scott Walker, and Kijak told Harold he was hoping to make a film about the musician. "I was working at the time, so I had money," Harold told "I told Stephen that if he got to the point where he was serious about making the film, I was there."

The two men share more than an interest in Scott Walker and the ability to talk for an apparently unlimited time about music. In separate interviews, they frequently echoed each other’s thoughts, particularly about the theme of alienation they perceive in Walker’s work, and its relevance to queer culture. During an interview — mostly, like Kijak’s, centered on music — in an Austin bar, Harold described artists and queers as sharing an outsider sensibility, which is why he isn’t surprised that gay audiences and artists are drawn to Walker.

"There’s a very strong feeling of alienation in a lot of Scott’s work," he said. "For anyone growing up with a strong need to create, to express yourself artistically, you experience that same sense of being alienated. If you’re a gay man but you don’t fit into the Abercrombie and Fitch model, or if you’re a straight man who doesn’t fit in with the NASCAR model — and that will be the culmination of everything wrong with American culture, the day Abercrombie and Fitch sponsors a NASCAR team — you feel that sense of alienation, of being an outsider."

He continued: "That gap in our culture, the one that exists outside the mainstream — that’s where you find artists, gay people, all the outsiders. ‘Queer culture’ is bigger than most people think."

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