Review: Roger Waters Us + Them
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
The intersection of beautifully crafted sound and footage combined with director Sean Evans‘ ability to turn an action-packed, live performance into an atmospheric, ethereal experience raises the bar for concert video.
Recorded during a series of June 2018, Amsterdam performances, “Roger Waters: Us + Them” is so exquisitely constructed it emancipates the film from traditional and repetitive templates employed in comparable efforts: the music takes center stage as the expression of ideas Waters and the audience wish to converse about unfold in an exchange between the twain: it takes a talent of Evans’ caliber to capture that. This film documents that dynamic with great cinematic power.
Within the film’s first couple of minutes, the crisp and brutally visceral sound of clapping thunder blends seamlessly into the sound of artillery, garnishing footage of a child sitting on a shore (part of the storylines that run on the background screens during the live performance). This brief introduction segues into the visual of Roger Waters taking the stage. In that brief convergence of audiovisual elements Evans manages to bewitch the audience, realigning their senses for an unusually gripping concert documentary.
The audience plays a central role in this film. It is never veiled in a sea of black. Instead, its interaction with the artist is central to the story and its voice is accentuated by the colors that flood the arena as this emotive call and response transpires.
Evans has gifted the viewer with a full set of perspectives: from the panoramic shots originating in the most remote points of the arena to the great and abundant shots taken from behind drummer Joey Waronker‘s viewpoint on stage. Even with all these perspectives, the approach never breaches the viewer’s commitment to the plot: the intentions of the live production (the track order, the visual effects, the lighting choices, and the background screen storylines) are all served well by Evans’ cinematic choices — and the viewer remains engaged while imbibing the performance from a diverse set of vantage points.
The audience and Waters are the crucial co-stars in this film — but if there is anything you should take away from this production it should be a realization that Evans has earned his stripes and a key place in the creative tradition of Storm Thorgerson: not because his work resembles Thorgerson’s but because it shares an important trait, namely, ambition that is successfully met by equal and greater ability. Evans has created a style of his own that flows naturally from within the historical context and style that spawns the intersection of his creative life with Waters’.
There is something striking about Evans’ sense of photographic cadence. The close-up shots of the musicians working their craft, the panoramic shots of an audience bathed in a cornucopia of lights and the powerful attention to sound details make “Roger Waters: Us + Them” a mesmerizing experience. Although these may all sound like common elements in any concert film, they are particularly striking in this work and converge robustly into an experience from beginning to end. It is a sustained audio-visual journey all the way through.
The first third of the film delivers some of Pink Floyd’s most prominent material, launching with tracks like “Time” and “The Great Gig in the Sky.” The set makes a steep ascent with “Welcome to the Machine,” its aggressive swagger elevating the band’s performance into perfect cohesion while creating space for each musician to shine on their own: Waronker’s drumming is particularly impressive, reminding listeners of Nick Mason‘s crucial role in shaping Pink Floyd’s sound; judgments that Mason’s drumming is too simple have always been over-simplistic themselves — the way Waronker (and Graham Broad before him in Waters’ band) plays and weaves all these tracks together is a great reminder of the texture Mason added to Pink Floyd’s music.
As the live performance (and the film) shift toward Waters’ most recent studio material during the second third of the film, it is the integrity, cohesiveness, and great musicianship of this band that helps sustain interest past the Pink Floyd classics: not for lack of enthusiasm for the new material (it is quite incredible watching audience members sing along, word for word, to the new tracks) but because it requires sustaining momentum after these “classic” tracks have been played back-to-back. The band succeeds in cultivating an appetite for this material and in bridging from it to another set of classics toward the conclusion of the show.
“Wish You Were Here” and “Another Brick in the Wall” (parts two and three) set the stage for some of the material that fans had been imploring Waters to play live in the years preceding the Us + Them tour. The last third of the show consists of epic Pink Floyd classics, the most intense use of stage production and effects, and the strongest political statements in the film.
Evans may have faced one of his biggest challenges here: capturing the magic of the production that unfolds during this part of the set may be an insurmountable task for many — but Evans delivers. Even if you are someone who has experienced the performance more than once in person, you owe it to yourself to take it in through Evans’ directorial eyes: the mix of angles and the bird’s eye perspective, used interchangeably during the film, really fleshes something additional.
Of course, this part of the performance and the film presents what some might perceive as an additional layer of challenges: this is the part of the concert that gets into the heaviest political discourse.
Evans, who shares many of Waters’ politics, is disciplined about balancing his personal passion for the message with its presentation to the broader public and in balance with the attention the music and stage production deserve. It is a careful balance to strike over the course of a handful of tracks and through its performance of “Money” (which, it must be noted, boasts some of the wildest surround sound details in the entire film).
What is most striking about the political content is how much of it is fueled by populism – on both sides of the spectrum.
So where do the rest find refuge? Despite the ironies, “Us and Them” seems to be the poetic force that ultimately helps bind us all together: “Me and you, God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do.” It’s the moment the anger simmers and you get the sense that there is hope and that, perhaps, somewhere deep inside we might all care for the same fundamental goals: “Black and blue… And who knows which is which, and who is who.”
The film closes with “Brain Damage” and “Eclipse” — both performances will give you goosebumps. Though you might ask yourself what happens to “Comfortably Numb,” Waters and Evans’ choice to close with “Eclipse” is the right one, especially when you take into account Waters’ last words as the film closes. Despite all the anger that drives the politics in our world today, ultimately we all want to reach the same goals — even if some have to search more profoundly for these basic human desires.
Those who have followed Waters’ work owe it to themselves to see this in a large movie theater before it becomes exclusive domain of DVD and streaming media. The work Evans and Waters have done on the sound is mind-blowing and the way they elevate the audience’s presence in the performance is superb. The shots are so vast you feel like an audience member taking the performance in from various points — even from the stage.
There is an interesting dynamic between the pace of the show (fast) and the pace of the film (a slow burn): somehow, Evans manages to serve us a moving picture of great detail — even as the live performance moves at an intense pace. This is an artistic accomplishment in its own right: you will find yourself assimilating the pace at which a camera moves from one side of the stage to the other realizing how much detail, on so many things, you have just taken in. There is a certain magic in that — and that is hard to capture live. It certainly does not diminish the live experience but is a statement about what you get from a cinematic experience when there is a good director at the helm. This is magnified on a large screen and the opportunity to experience it this way is limited.
You better run.
“Roger Waters Us + Them” will be playing in cinemas across the United States on October 2nd and 6th. Please visit rogerwatersusandthem.com for details. Enter to win tickets at the theater of your choice, courtesy of “Floydian Slip” and Trafalgar Releasing.