Few rock docs illustrate the grind of being a long-running band with a cult following like Toby Amies' In the Court of the Crimson King does. It opens with a roadie for King Crimson talking about the dark and dingy halls they play in, and the horrible places they go. He says it's never lovely places, just dark and cold ones. What a way to start this unconventional documentary about the late 60's prog rock band.
It is that unusual focus on the business of being in a touring rock band in its 50th year that sets this film apart. King Crimson had one minor hit, "21st Century Schizoid Man", that today may be more remembered for being sampled by Kanye West that for helping usher in the prog-rock scene that peaked in the 70s. The doc is full of faces that speak about the endless toil of being in the band. It traces the history of band members quitting furiously. No one talks about the sex, drugs, and rock n' roll of it all. It is this quality that also makes this one of the more honest looks at rock music in some time.
Amies is careful to be honest about the realities of King Crimson but also makes sure to capture the "why do it then" pull of playing music. It highlights the sublime moments of creating music and playing it to an ecstatic audience. King Crimson aims to be a band that gives you a transcendent moment. This film shows you the cost of that pursuit.
75-year-old founder Robert Fripp is the central figure here. He is the one member of the original lineup to remain in the band. In a way, the band is his life mission. He rules over it like a dictator but this is in service of that greater goal. Some band members through the years share how difficult it is to be in a band where mistakes aren't allowed and only one person calls the shots. Others thrive in an environment that is controlled and focused. Fripp is routinely honest about the rotating lineup and the reasons behind it. He demands a fanatical loyalty to his vision and a high level of professionalism.
Fripp says at one point that when the band is in a flow state "it changes my state." You understand the desire to reach this place of musical transcendence thanks to the honest interviews on display. With Fripp taking things so seriously, it is a deep affront to him when someone should stray from his vision. One of his former bandmates says "Being in King Crimson is a little bit like a low-grade fever, you're not sick but not well either." And yet, members of the band stick with it because when everything comes together, there is nothing like it.
This is the magic of In the Court of the Crimson King, it never demonizes Fripp but rather helps us understand the power of musical collaborations. King Crimson routinely changes its sound, instruments, members, and approach to music. The band rejected any attempt to appeal to the masses from the get-go. They work so hard and yet have almost no hits and a small, loyal fan base. Their music is dense and tough, blending jazz, progressive rock, and experimentation into music that is sophisticated and austere. I doubt anyone is a casual King Crimson fan as a result. And yet, regardless of your opinion on their music, Amies gets you to respect the pursuit Fripp has. There is no question by the end of the documentary as to why there is a "cult of Crimson." The discipline to create this music warrants respect.
Amies does a great job of infiltrating the band. He gets such calm, profound interviews about being in the band and what it is to be a professional musician. In one of the film's most touching segments, drummer Bill Rieflin comes to terms with his stage-four cancer. Rieflin is a hugely influential drummer from industrial bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. Amies sees him in the last days of his playing music and gives this the respect it deserves.
In the Court of the Crimson King may not win you over to the band King Crimson. It likely will not make you like Robert Fripp, the creative force behind it, however, you will respect his discipline. It will give you a deep understanding of the realities of being a musician who tours and plays live all the time. It provides insight as to why bands continue on when fame and fortune pass them by. It is a loving tribute to music.