Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) Movie Review: Album Art Gods

Chances are, Hipgnosis—the working name of a pair of English lads, Storm Thorgerson & Audrey ‘Po’ Powell, who revolutionized the concept of rock album artwork—is known to you.

Familiar with the band Pink Floyd? If so, you’ve probably seen Hipgnosis’s cover designs for Floyd’s glory run of ‘70s platters: The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals.

The pair’s work can be striking, enigmatic. Breathtaking, even. Over the years (as a team, they stayed in the album artwork business from 1968 to 1983), Hipgnosis became a codeword of sorts. Wanted to give fans of your music a heady experience through your album cover and gatefold? Something trippy, slick, and cool that might suggest the musical contents contained within the sleeve? You called Hipgnosis.

And they were costly. But… This was the ‘70s! The biggest rock artists (and the labels that supported them) were flush with cash. It was vogue to blow a ton of dough on frivolous things. And when rock music was at the center of the cultural conversation (which was also when Hipgnosis was a thriving, active unit), it was only natural for the gods of rock to drop a king’s ransom on crafting the perfect LP sleeve.

Mixing archival footage with new interviews, Anton Corbijn’s documentary on the duo, Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis), is a thoughtful and entertaining glimpse at how these cheeky guys began as Cambridge mates with some cats in the Floyd, in 1964; how they changed the times, and the times changed them. The documentary does a marvelous job of telling their story. We get a deep feel for each man’s skill set. We see the obsessive, chaotic, and ambitious way their talents (and those of the other artists who became part of the Hipgnosis design firm) blended. How this allowed Hipgnosis to create still-stunning covers for albums both classic and shite. We’re also presented with amusing tales of chance inspiration, of excessive excess, which led Hipgnosis to concoct just the right image(s). (A favorite: For a 10cc album cover, the team flew to Hawaii and tranquilized a sheep, which they posed on a psychiatrist’s couch, the image for which Hipgnosis decreased to the size of a postage stamp for the end product.)

Among the talking heads Corbijn enlists to provide firsthand views on Hipgnosis’s enduring legacy are the surviving members of Pink Floyd, half of Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney (of a small band called the Beatles), Peter Gabriel, Graham Gouldman (of 10cc), and Noel Gallagher. Gallagher never used Hipgnosis’s services; but everyone, Po included (Thorgerson, sadly, died in 2013), has an amusing anecdote or insight (or two) to share. Corbijn also sits down with Roger Dean and Peter Saville, both esteemed album cover artists who hold the Hipgnosis legacy in high regard.

Squaring the Circle is a bit of an emotional viewing experience. Po—who became estranged from Thorgerson and reconciled with him before he passed—reflects on a life of making art with a headstrong and brilliant guy, an oft-times insufferable dynamo. Squaring the Circle charts an era. It also offers a snapshot of a brotherly bond that became strained, yet created some of the most iconic album covers of all time.

As someone who fell in love with the golden age of album rock—an era the Floyd and several others launched—I’ve been waiting for Hipgnosis to get the admiring and serious tribute this documentary provides. Should you see it and be inspired to go digging, many artistic wonders await you. Corbijn’s documentary performs a public service. It helps lift the veil on how Hipgnosis created some of their most lasting art. Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) left me smiling.

Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) premiered on June 7, 2023, in New York and opened last Friday in L.A. The documentary will have one-night-only showings across the country this coming Tuesday (June 20). Mark your calendar!

Jack Cormack

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