If you had to guess which legendary rock and roll artist has a new concert film featuring characters that include “Refugee,” “Drone Pilot” and “Palestinian Girl”, there’s a good chance your guess would be Roger Waters. The former Pink Floyd front man is practically defined by his decades-spanning collection of songs and concept albums that dive headlong into hot-button social and political issues that include capitalist greed (1977’s “Animals”), youthful alienation (1979’s “The Wall”), and the futility of war (1992’s “Amused to Death”).
In 2017’s principled and tuneful “Is This the Life We Really Want?,” his first solo album of all-new rock material since “Amused to Death,” Waters turns his skeptical yet hopeful eye toward refugees and President Trump, among other topics. The album’s most biting songs, featuring ferocious lyrics tailor-made for tweet-sized social media messages, are also the highlight of his latest concert film, “Roger Waters Us + Them,” a sonically superior if sometimes draggy affair that earns its stripes by affirming the timelessness of Waters’ thematic concerns and proving that fresh material doesn’t have to be the medicine we’re forced to swallow to hear the classics. Shot over three nights in June 2018 during the Us +Them tour stop in Amsterdam, the film looks and sounds fantastic and should easily rope in his aging fan base. If they blink and miss its two-days-only theatrical release in October, the DVD is set for store shelves in early 2020.
Indeed, the age of his fans leads co-directors Waters and Sean Evans to make the odd choice of limiting audience reaction shots primarily to tattooed and pierced men and women in their 20s and 30s. One young woman actually sheds a tear. While this reads as a fairly silly way of arguing that the 76-year-old songwriter and bassist can connect with a younger generation, it does remind us of the universality and insolvability of the problems that distress him so greatly.
Some of the younger concertgoers are not too far removed from the prison-jumpsuit-wearing local kids who line the stage for “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” a multi-cultural group who eventually rip off their orange vestments to reveal T-shirts that read “resist.” “The Last Refugee” gives voice to one of Waters’ latest topical concerns, augmented in aching if ineffectual fashion by live-action sequences. If he never gets us feeling the same level of sadness and anger over the ongoing worldwide refugee crisis, it’s not for lack of trying. In his matching black T-shirt and jeans, Waters still cuts an authoritative yet hip figure, the coolest grandpa ever. While his voice has never been one of pure velocity and clean lines like Freddie Mercury’s, it’s still in very fine form, his cracked and battle-scared warble conveying authenticity and righteous fury. And make no mistake, for a man championing peace, he sure sounds furious.
The film’s highlight is a blistering multi-song reaction to Trump starting with “Picture That” (“picture a leader with no f—ing brains”) from the new album, followed later by the one-two punch of “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” from “Animals” and “Money” from “The Dark Side of the Moon.” Here, editor Katharine McQuerrey works with the music and the stage visuals (including billboard-sized Trump quotes and Pink Floyd’s legendary floating pig) to devastating effect, giving the film the political charge we’ve been waiting for. It obliterates any nagging worry that the 156-show tour is merely trading on Water’s past glories like so many other rockers of a certain age taken to running wheezy laps around the nostalgia track.
Any Roger Waters arena concert is an unparalleled spectacle, and while DP Brett Turnbull’s coverage of the band onstage breaks no new ground, the crushed blacks add a dark and provocative edge. The stage includes a 94-foot wide LED screen, and about halfway through the concert, a giant metal grid and 16 moving screens descend from the roof. Seen live, it was presumably an awe-inspiring contribution to the evening’s overall effect, an epic vision that Turnbull’s arena-encompassing wide shots can suggest but never fully convey.
The movie’s title is adapted from the “Dark Side” track “Us and Them.” Replacing the “and” with a plus sign makes the point that if humanity is going to survive the only way forward is together. It’s a notion that he’s taken to controversial extremes in recent years having repeatedly and unrepentantly stepped on the age’s geopolitical third rail: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Us + Them,” both film and concert, ends with a spoken-word plea for justice for “our brothers and sisters in Palestine” who, in Waters’ telling, live under Israel’s deeply repressive apartheid regime.
In today’s politically polarized culture, criticizing both Trump and Israel risks leaving a whole lot of money on the table in terms of concert revenue and DVD and streaming sales. But this is “Us + Them’s” primary achievement, one that should not be blithely dismissed in this PC era: Although Waters is sometimes aggravating and occasionally trouble-making, he is, to repurpose a lyric from “Breathe,” not afraid to care. “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” sings the band’s David Gilmour stand-in, guitarist Jonathan Wilson, in the Pink Floyd classic “Time.” It is not, thank goodness, Roger Waters’ way.