In the Court of the Crimson King thrives as an unbiased tribute film, keen in its documentation of the professional and personal spheres of various musicians.
Despite being active for half a century, the legendary, massively influential English prog rock band King Crimson has undergone so many lineup changes that it might be hard for even the most diehard fan to remember all the various individuals who were once members across the band’s prolific history. But there’s certainly one man even the cursorily knowledgeable should be able to point to, the group’s most prominent player and the original co-creator of the act, whose name has been tethered to King Crimson throughout the years: Robert Fripp. An eloquent English gentleman, a cerebral mystic, a restless and perfectionistic virtuoso, a man both enigmatic and charismatic, Fripp has cultivated King Crimson’s unique universe and musical methodology via an overbearing, demanding approach and a peculiar philosophy, which obviously made the creative process intense and challenging for most of his collaborating bandmates. As Fripp himself states, the current lineup “is the first King Crimson where there’s not at least one member in the band that actively resents my presence.”
Toby Amies’ In the Court of the Crimson King arrives as something of a celebration in honor of the titular album’s 50th anniversary, telling the oversized history of this rock act — constructed with Fripp fixed as the focal point — that initially formed in a West London basement and has always been famous for presenting artistic freedom and consistent innovation where all members must leave behind all previous knowledge and always start anew from square one. It seems appropriate, then, that Amies’ documentary begins with shots of empty auditoriums, articulating the necessity of absolute silence for Fripp. Indeed, Amies here seems to more or less follow the same playbook that has defined King Crimson and which is essential to Fripp’s worldview; that’s to say, the goal seems to be to capture some thematic and artistic parallel between the film and KC’s art and music, with Amies regarding spontaneity as the primary forming element. Filmed mainly during the band’s pre-pandemic world tour — and dispensing with any linear biographical structure or overreliance of archival footage or essayistic portraiture of the band — In the Court plays out much more like a series of improvised, organic encounters and one-on-one conversations with both former and current members, an effort to bring each individual’s perceptions and emotions and memories regarding King Crimson to the screen. It’s a sincere, uncalculated investigation into the thoughts of Fripp’s collaborators, about what a relationship with the mercurial artist is and what being part of King Crimson’s creative environment has meant, while also extending to include interactions with various technicians, roadies, and diehard fans, a nun among them. Given this general approach and structuring principle, it makes sense that Fripp chose Amies, who “had no familiarity with King Crimson whatsoever,” to direct this documentary, his explorations lending extra authenticity to the film.
Indeed, Amies’ selection further reflects the very mindset which has always worked as a driving force for King Crimson, one that calls for unapologetic and unconventional discipline in one’s march toward the unknown, letting go of prior knowledge and ulterior motivation. In this sense, even if In the Court may not be the kind of film to dole out never-before-heard first-hand accounts, the kind of nuggets that fans admittedly relish, it thrives as an unbiased tribute film, keen in its documentation of the professional and personal spheres of various musicians and smartly platforming their respective voices. In giving such expansive space to these individuals to speak on their experiences with King Crimson, their words of sarcasm, joy, and regret casually but profoundly begin to slide into grander considerations of life and death as the film progresses. In the Court of the Crimson King holds the kind of twofold appeal that such docs too rarely muster: you come for the fascinating and touching moments that KC’s hardcore fandom will eat up, but you stay for a more universal, inspirational study of what it is to work or dream to work as an artist. The hardships, the unwavering dedication, and even the unavoidable heartbreaks that are part of every story of building a lasting, singular legacy are all here and essential, but Fripp also emphasizes the significance of the presence of the experience. To this end, Amies’ celebratory film succeeds in enabling viewers through loose, amiable explorations — a temperament playfully at odds with the formal and rigorous manner of KC — to remain engaged and present while King Crimson here holds court.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 4.