Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) – Film Review (Sundance 2023)

Directed by Anton Corbijn, Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis is his first documentary that’s not affiliated with Depeche Mode. It’s about the company that was responsible for some of the most famous album covers n the world. The company was started by two Cambridge University friends, Aubrey Powell and Storm Thorgerson, who already knew the Pink Floyd members from the Cambridge scene. Their first cover was the second Pink Floyd album, Saucerful of Secrets (their last with Sid Barrett).

Powell and Thorgerson continued working together until 1983 despite regular fallings-out, and the documentary charts the rise of the firm and the changes that happened over the course of their work. By the 1980s companies weren’t usually wiling to spend the ridiculous amounts on album covers that they once were partly due to advent of punk/new wave.

It’s mainly through the point of view of surviving partner Powell, with contributions from the remaining members of Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, Roger Plant and Peter Saville, amongst others. There’s an emphasis on their work with McCartney, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. It runs through the wild story of doing high-concept album covers for the biggest names of the era, and while I don’t like most of the bands they worked for, it’s a very entertaining documentary.

The stories of art overkill are really funny, and the way some of these covers would have been so much easier to do in the studio in London in some cases (Wings Greatest, for example) is hilarious—McCartney wanted a statue on a mountain, so they flew one up a mountain instead doing a montage.

The story behind Pink Floyd’s Animals album is one of the best. They had signed permissions with London to be allowed to shoot over Battersea Power Station, promising the pig balloon could not escape, but five minutes in, of course it did. The balloon sparked panic over London, with reports coming in from pilots and the public of a flying pig. They ended up with a montage anyway, so it was all a monumental waste of time. That cover for Wish You Were Here? No, that wasn’t studio special effects, that was the seventh take or so of actually setting someone on fire. The amount they spent to shoot a sheep on a chaise lounge on the beach to only end up being a tiny picture 10cc’s Look Hear? album was jawdropping. And they incorporated Peter Gabriel’s silver contact lenses (which he wore just to freak people out) into one of his covers.

However, often the real stories dispel a lot of stoner myths about the “meaningfulness” of some the cover images they came up with. All of that is fun, and you have a nice little 15 minutes about Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson, who started with Hipgnosis as an assistant and worked his way up to being a partner. Christopherson’s unique outlook changed things up a bit at the company, and although the label never did much punk stuff he did do some photography and design work for the Sex Pistols. Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats was another of his, of course.

There isn’t a lot of archival video, so Corbijn makes good use of photos and newly filmed interviews to flesh out what was available. It’s nice that he was able to tell the story while Powell is still alive. At one point Noel Gallagher shows up with a pretty pointless commentary, and sounds like the oldest geezer of the lot. In sum, Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis is a lighthearted film, and a fun watch. Other than the occasional shot of a colour cover, Corbijn sticks with his usual black and white palette, and given that the topic is close to his heart it makes a good case for him as a documentarian. Given that he hasn’t made a feature in seven years, it was nice to see him active making features again.


Ian Schultz


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