Movie Review: In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson at 50

A film by Toby Amies

Released 2022

Short Version — it’s okay, very little new or really surprising.

King Crimson is indisputably one of the icons of prog, generally acknowledged to have founded the genre as a full-on recognizable thing with their first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, released in 1969. Robert Fripp of course is Legend, regardless of how you feel about him. The band itself has never really been a band, but more of a concept that fluctuates with Fripp’s fluctuating notions of “band”.

If you have even a passing awareness of the career of Robert Fripp/King Crimson, then there is probably very little in the movie that will come as a surprise. The movie spends its time following the band around, talking to its members and a few of the survivors of the early days. We don’t see a lot of performance or hear a lot of the music (there is lots of noodling/set-up/rehearsal), although there are some really early clips of the first version of the band, which are cool to see. 

The overall aim of the movie seems to be getting various performers to talk about how they feel about Robert Fripp. Fripp has always given the impression of being somewhere between difficult and impossible to work with, and nothing anyone says in the movie changes that. It is one thing to have high expectations and demand the best of your band, but at times Fripp seems to revel in being a deliberate martinet. He also was clearly going out of his way to provoke the interviewer — but I would assume that one would enter into such an exercise (interviewing Fripp) prepared for that sort of thing. The band members (current and former)  appear to either revere Fripp, or have chosen to suck it up and stick with him, suffering through the tribulations of performance for the sake of the ideal that is “King Crimson” — or both. The reasons for putting oneself through the ordeal often remain unclear. Gavin Harrison had very little interview time — it is not clear why. Bill Bruford was interviewed more extensively but in the end he really didn’t shed much light on the workings of the band either. Perhaps everyone was simply treading cautiously. 

There was one moment that did surprise me: Fripp admitted that the first break-up of the first incarnation of Crimson (the departure of MacDonald and Giles) devastated him: he says he offered to quit if they would stay and carry on with King Crimson. At this point in his career it is hard to imagine him doing that, but perhaps at the beginning….

I’ve seen King Crimson twice — once a few years back with what looks to be the lineup we see in the movie, in a suitably formal venue (Massey Hall), and once way back in the mists of time, the Fripp/Levin/Belew/Bruford lineup in an intimate venue, with Fripp sitting close enough to touch (not that I would have committed such a crime). I also saw him as a solo artist, doing his Frippertronics over two nights. The three albums released when the Crimson was at its most spare (Fripp/Wetton/Bruford) are my favourites: Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red. I can take or leave any of the rest. 

In short, King Crimson has been a musical enterprise I have respected more than I have ever liked. Nevertheless, as a music fan, it is hard to escape Fripp’s reach — even without Crimson, he has been a major force in the prog/ambient world, a part of the music of a large number of other important artists. Love him or hate him, there is no question of his towering importance.

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