‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ Review: Doc About a Prog-Rock Perfectionist Is Nearly Perfect Itself

The SXSW-premiering documentary gives King Crimson's 53-year history its due and is rife with rich characters, starting with the band's natty genius of a leader, tough taskmaster Robert Fripp.

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Can a band that seems to operate under rigidly precise conditions that can appear joyless from the outside still produce music that sparks spontaneous ecstasy in listeners? That’s the sort of question that might not seem unusual if it were a classical ensemble we were talking about, or the ballet. But in a new documentary about the group King Crimson, it’s legendary guitar player Robert Fripp, as tough a taskmaster as anyone in the so-called finer arts, who’s keeping the musicians in his hire perpetually on pointe.

In the Court of the Crimson King” is really about as good as rock documentaries get, in capturing the essence of a group of musicians and how they relate to each other, the world and a muse whose demands result in literal and figurative calluses. That doesn’t mean that King Crimson is the kind of Everyman group whose struggles will be relatable even to garage bands, the way the Beatles’ battles were in “Get Back.” There’s nothing remotely prototypical about this one-of-a-kind crew — although there may be some universality that other bands can relate to in how King Crimson has somehow survived for 53 years as a not-always-benign dictatorship.

Director Toby Amies doesn’t just get the eight current members of the group on camera. He goes back and interviews what we might think of as disgruntled ex-employees, too, most notably another guitar legend, Adrian Belew, who seemed to be Fripp’s equal during a very long and fruitful mid-period for the band, in 1981-2009, until he got the ultimate message that the band did have a boss. Amies even goes back and talks with the two guys who quit right in the group’s first year of existence, in 1969 — including co-founder Ian McDonald, who died just in February of this year, and has a heartrendingly tearful sign-off here. It’s up to you whether you identify more with the many players over the decades who couldn’t hack the stress and got out (or got a push, like Belew), or the ones that decided it was worth the high expectations and frayed nerves to remain in the court of prog-rock’s most enduring royalty.

Most of the film follows the current incarnation of the band on a pre-COVID world tour, in which it’s easy for even a non-hardcore fan to figure out why the cult of King Crimson endures and regularly sells out decent-sized halls around the world. A few acolytes are interviewed, most memorably a nun, who has a very developed theory of what’s spiritual about King Crimson’s sometimes downright mathematical music. But otherwise it’s all about the players, who sometimes, comically, have to put up with Fripp overhearing the filmmaker’s questions from across the stage and dismissing them as “shite.”

Almost always clad in a formal vest and necktie, Fripp is the ultimate English gentleman whose willingness to suffer fools even half-gladly is often being tested, not least of all by the filmmaker he commissioned to make this document. At one point the bandleader complains that answering questions cut into the four hours or so of practicing he does every day — no lie — and thus adversely affected the previous night’s performance. There’s a he-can’t-be-serious extremeness to some of Fripp’s on-camera statements, like when he likens being let down by substandard performances of other musicians to feeling “like my mother has died.” The response some viewers will reasonably have to statements like this is: “Lighten up, Frances.” Yet if the severity of his convictions makes him a tough character to embrace, the nearly tender eloquence with which he speaks about his love affair with music may come to feel like grounds for acquittal. (At least if you’re not Adrian Belew.)

You don’t have to come in with a King Crimson fan club card to enjoy “In the Court of the Crimson King,” although it doesn’t hurt to have at least a passing familiarity with a few of the players’ names. But soon enough the extensive cast of past and present King Crimson members comes into relief, even for those not already immersed in a catalog that has song titles that trip off the tongue as heavily as “Larks Tongues in Aspic Part Two.”

With Fripp remaining prickly as protagonists go, there are plenty of other musicians in the film who have more norm-core personalities to relate to. Among them is Bill Rieflin, one of three drummers on the tour that was being followed, who talks openly about soldiering on despite the fact that he is in constant pain from stage 4 cancer. He died in 2020, after principal photography was completed, and Rieflin’s literally till-death-do-we-part devotion to living out his last days as a member of King Crimson is a stoic, finally touching thing to behold. Of course, Fripp is about as openly sentimental about his fallen right-hand-man as his imperiousness would lead you to expect: “Bill’s sense of rightness was within the same frequency range as my own sense of rightness.”

For a band whose polyrhythms and headiness really do require musicians to have and use math skills, Fripp’s elegy comes close enough to feeling like love.

‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ Review: Doc About a Prog-Rock Perfectionist Is Nearly Perfect Itself

Reviewed online, SXSW Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second), March 14, 2022. Running time: 86 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Discipline Global Media production. Producers: Toby Amies, Nick Freand Jones. Executive producers: David Sngleton, Kat Mansoor.
  • Crew: Director: Toby Amies. Camera: Amies. Editor: Ollie Huddleston. Music: King Crimson.
  • With: Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Bill Rieflin, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Trey Gunn, Ian McDonald, Peter Sinfield, Jakko Jakszyk, Mel Collins, Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey.