David Gilmour is reclining on a greenroom couch inside a large cineplex in London’s West End. He looks relaxed in a blue blazer and sneakers, his brown flight bag tossed in a corner, but tonight he has much to be excited about. In a few hours, the movie theater will be hosting a VIP premiere of his new concert film, Live at Pompeii, chronicling his brilliant two-night stand last year in the ancient Italian city’s millennia-old amphitheater, which was once razed and buried by the volcano Vesuvius. As he inspects a poster for the movie, his mind wanders back to the first time he performed in the venue – as a member of Pink Floyd playing before an audience of ghosts in the empty amphitheater – and he parses how it felt to come full circle 45 years later.
“I can’t remember how long we were there – it must have been well over a week in the area – but it was really hot,” he says, thinking back nearly five decades. “This time, it was really hot again but it was very different overall, since we had an audience and were putting on a show.” He pauses and thinks about the film. “That moment at the beginning of the show, when you got the last bit of sunlight circling down behind Vesuvius over the top of this fantastic arena, it’s beautiful.”
That cinematic moment captures the spirit of the concerts, which found Gilmour’s soaring guitar lines providing a soundtrack for picturesque views of the volcano (at one point, the sky at dusk was a shade of deep green) and the scent of ancient dust. Only a couple thousand concertgoers witnessed each show, which featured Gilmour playing selections from his recent solo LP, Rattle That Lock, and Pink Floyd classics at the center of a brilliant light show, complete with pyrotechnics and his circular projection screen. It was the first time an audience had watched any performance in the amphitheater since Roman times, a once-in-several-lifetimes experience.
Now a much larger audience will be able to experience the concert when the film gets a special one-night-only screening in more than 2,000 theaters around the world on Wednesday, followed by a CD and home-video release later this month. It’s all part of Gilmour’s vision to create unique experiences for his fans.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve aimed to play real beautiful, lovely venues,” Gilmour says, pointing to his 2016 performances at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and the Chicago Auditorium, as well as Pompeii and Rome’s Circus Maximus. “I really like to create something where people have something on top of just the music experience in a room, where they say, ‘Ah, that was something special.'”
For Gilmour, the pressure was even heavier at Pompeii since he had a history there. When he performed there last, in October 1971, it was for another concert picture. Filmmaker Adrian Maben had courted the band to be the focus of his now-oft-mimicked “anti-Woodstock” flick, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, which saw them playing on the floor of the venue to nobody.
At the time, it was more of a noise-making mission. The band banged gongs, played slide guitar and whispered into microphones for a mini set that included their Meddle masterpieces “Echoes” and “One of These Days,” as well as more experimental fare like “A Saucerful of Secrets” and their eerie single “Careful With that Axe, Eugene.” It was at a time when Gilmour was defining himself as a guitarist (“It was a little tricky coming into Pink Floyd after Syd [Barrett] and trying to copy his style a bit but move it towards what I wanted to do,” he says) and the music from the time paved the way for 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, nearly half of which Gilmour played at his solo Pompeii gig.
This time, he also made a decidedly less experimental film, putting it in the hands of director Gavin Elder, who’d previously made Gilmour’s 2008 concert film, Live in Gdańsk. “He said to capture it the best I can and to make it as exciting and momentous as I can,” Elder says. “He wanted to capture the majesty of the arena.”
“I tried not to say too much to him about what I wanted,” Gilmour says. “My plan is to get people who have an artistic vision themselves and see what they can do. I don’t want it to be rigid or controlled. I don’t know how to make films; I’m a guitar player. And Gavin knows what he’s doing.”
Despite Elder’s experience, it wasn’t an easy shoot. The camera crew had to be especially careful of the ancient structure’s foundations. Although the concert was in July, Elder was working with the staff at the ruins for four months figuring out just how to shoot a concert film there. “All the gear had to be trucked in, pushed in on a special ramp they built and brought back into the arena,” the filmmaker says. “It hasn’t been modernized, so it’s not built for concerts.” The night they tested everything, one of the lighting guys fell into a hole in the ruins and broke his arm. “Health and safety wasn’t big with the Romans,” Elder says.
The crew wasn’t allowed to bring cameras onto the floor of the arena, so the stationary cameras were either on the sides or on cranes. They were allowed only one Steadicam but it had to keep moving, which made the shoot all the more difficult. They solved some of these problems by using a drone to capture some of the film’s magnificent aerial shots from afar. (The Italian authorities wouldn’t let it fly over the actual amphitheater, and during one of the concerts, a rogue drone was spotted, though the footage has yet to surface.)
“We got shots from maybe a mile away,” Gilmour says, smiling, thinking about the drone-shot footage. “You’ve got this little disc down there, which is the arena with Vesuvius behind it, and the light and the smoke and light coming out of this little disc and you zoom towards it and it’s fabulous.”
The overarching challenge, Elder says, was to make it not feel small and to relay the special feeling of the occasion. “We felt we were in the presence of history when we were doing the laser testing, especially the night before in that amazing southern Italian heat,” Elder says. “There’s a real presence that a lot has gone on there before.”
The film opens with the Rattle That Lock instrumental “5 A.M.” just as the sun is setting behind the amphitheater. “I was very conscious of what time the show was going to start,” Elder says. “I really wanted to capture the magical twilight time, so that you got the sense of where Vesuvius was behind the arena in the distance. I remember going back and forth with the production staff, because the lighting guy was saying, ‘No, no, no, we need to start the show when it’s dark.’ And after some heated moments, we reached a compromise that definitely works for the show.” It turned out perfectly.
The rest of the night’s magic was left up to Gilmour and his band. When he thinks back to his first Pompeii performance in front of an audience, the singer admits he felt a little nervous before going onstage. “I pretend that I’m not,” he says, “but I think I probably was a bit.” It helped him, though, that he had a backing band that inspired confidence in him. Prior to the European leg of his Rattle That Lock tour, he brought in Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell and former Michael Jackson musical director Greg Phillinganes, among others, to make the music a little looser. “It was more in the groove in Pompeii,” Gilmour says.
Three band members who stayed in the ensemble through each of the legs of the tour were the backing vocalists Bryan Chambers, Lucita Jules and Louise Clare Marshall, who provided a stunning three-part harmony for Dark Side‘s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” which Gilmour had not performed live since 2006. “Louise came to me when we were rehearsing for the tour and said, ‘We’ve been working at home on a version of “Great Gig in the Sky,” do you want to hear it?'” Gilmour recalls. “I said, ‘Of course I do.’ So we ran it a couple of times and it was fabulous. They really worked hard on creating a mixture between the classic performance and some new, distinct arrangement parts. We couldn’t wait to do it, but we thought we’d save it for Pompeii.”
Another song Gilmour kept in his back pocket until just before Pompeii was Pink Floyd’s galloping space-rocker “One of These Days,” one of the highlights from Maben’s original picture. “We had to do one that we did back in those days,” he says. “That was the one that fit, and we always had great fun with it. You get the wind machine going, a bit of smoke and fog, and let Guy [Pratt] loose on his thundering bass. And, of course, I get to play slide guitar which is always,” he pauses, “a big moment.”
When Gilmour spoke to Rolling Stone before the Pompeii gig last year, he said the one original Pompeii song he absolutely would not perform was “Echoes,” because it would feel off without late Pink Floyd keyboardist Rick Wright playing on it. Instead, he included some musical tributes to Wright, who played in Gilmour’s solo band in 2006, in the set. “‘The Blue’ was written and recorded before Rick died but to me, it’s got a little bit of Rick in it,” Gilmour says, referring to a track from his 2006 solo LP On an Island. “It’s another rolling, waving song, along with [Rattle That Lock‘s] ‘A Boat Lies Waiting’ and ‘Great Gig in the Sky,’ that feels to me that he’s in it. So we do a little moment of three or four songs that are all connected [to him] in that way.”
Wright’s memory is also present in spirit in the film’s finale, a rousing, elongated performance of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” that also features Gilmour playing a supersized guitar solo. “I just try and let the solo come out,” Gilmour says. “I couldn’t play the one off the album. I try not too think about it too much.”
Another thing that Gilmour is just letting happen is the process of writing a follow up to Rattle That Lock. Since the tour ended last September, he’s been recording a few song ideas he has into his iPhone with the intention of examining them when he can get into a studio. He also has a few leftover ideas he’s been sitting on.
“I’ve recorded some pieces of music in one form or another,” he says, noting that he’s been dedicating his time to getting the 3D-style Atmos sound mix just right for the film. “Whether they will remain as they are or whether those pieces of music will take a new shape when I start working on a new project is something I can’t really say yet. I suspect they will be revamped a bit, maybe started again on, but the bare bones of what I’ve written are something good. And some of them definitely are. It’s a good starting point. We’ll see how I want to make it. I just need to knock them into shape for another album one of these days.” (He adds that recording a new album is a prerequisite for any future touring.)
Now, though, Gilmour is simply eager to see his Live in Pompeii. “I’ve only really watched it properly in bits in editing suites,” he confesses. “I’ve listened to the sound and I’ve watched some of it during the Atmos sound adjustments, but I haven’t seen the whole package put together like we’re going to see it tonight. So I can’t wait to see it myself.”
Outside the greenroom, people are setting up a red carpet to welcome the Gilmour’s VIP guests to the premiere. As band members like Leavell, Phillinganes and the backup singers funnel in, along with Elder and guitarist Jeff Beck, Gilmour smiles broadly and greets each one, posing for the occasional photo. A video screen shows scenes from the film.
Eventually all of the guests go upstairs to experience Live at Pompeii in a proper theater. The Atmos mix makes it sound as though the audience at Pompeii is all around the theater, clapping and cheering in surround sound along with the VIPs who do the same. When it finishes, Gilmour stands up and smiles, speaking with friends one on one rather than making a speech.
“It was a really spectacular gig,” Beck tells me outside. “I wonder if the spirits of Pompeii will recover from it. I know what happened there historically – all sorts of blood and guts, so at least [Gilmour] came in peace.” He laughs. “The concert was amazing, astonishing. The film drew the whole thing together nicely.” We’re then interrupted by Gilmour, who comes up to Beck with a broad smile, chatting for a minute and then ushering him behind a velvet rope into an after party.
From the look on Gilmour’s face, he’s at peace with his long-overdue return to Pompeii.