An upcoming documentary will provide a rare look at the inner workings of King Crimson, one of rock’s most respected but also mysterious bands. Titled In the Court of the Crimson King, after the group’s legendary 1969 debut, the film will premiere at South by Southwest this March, and a new trailer is available to view now.
As seen in the trailer, the film follows the most recent incarnation of King Crimson, a three-drummer “double quartet,” on tour in 2018 and 2019. We see intimate, fly-on-wall footage of the band onstage, backstage, and in transit, and clips of sit-down interviews with members from throughout their half-century-plus history. Bits of King Crimson’s signature song, the fiercely futuristic anti-war anthem “21st Century Schizoid Man,” punctuate the scenes.
Toby Amies, who previously profiled the eccentric British actor and dancer Drako Oho Zarhazar in 2013 doc The Man Whose Mind Exploded, directed the film. The new trailer reveals the updated title of the doc, originally called Cosmic F*Kc, and hints at how In the Court of the Crimson King will focus not just on the band’s artistic genius — the way guitarist, co-founder, and sole consistent member Robert Fripp has piloted it from progressive rock into art pop, free improvisation, and more — but also the interpersonal struggles that have kept King Crimson’s lineup in near-constant flux.
“It’s the dream band viewed from outside; it’s the band you could do anything you wanted to in it,” says drummer Bill Bruford, a King Crimson member on and off from the Seventies through the Nineties, early in the trailer. Then a parade of other former and current members hint at their difficulties during their time in the band. “Some of us went through hell,” says saxophonist Mel Collins, an early-Seventies member who rejoined in 2013 after reconciling with the famously exacting Fripp. “I came back from making some of that music, my hair had fallen out,” says guitarist-vocalist Adrian Belew, who fronted Crimson’s New Wave–informed Eighties incarnation. At one point, co-founding keyboardist-saxist Ian McDonald, who left the group at the height of its initial success in late ’69, turns up to offer a tearful apology to his former bandmate Fripp: “I love you, Robert, and I’m sorry I broke your heart.”
Fripp himself marvels at how the band’s latest lineup — which will likely go down as its final one, following the end of King Crimson’s 2020 tour, apparently its last ever — managed to achieve some degree of harmony after so many decades. “This is the first King Crimson where there’s not at least one member of the band that actively resents my presence,“ he says. “Which is astonishing.”
Also heard from in the trailer are co-founder and former drummer Michael Giles, elusive early-Seventies percussionist Jamie Muir, and current singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk and drummer Pat Mastelotto, as well as drummer Bill Rieflin, a member since 2013 who died from cancer in 2020.
The movie was commissioned by the band, but as King Crimson manager David Singleton tells Rolling Stone, they left the project firmly in Amies’ hands.
“Robert and I have long believed that there should be a good King Crimson documentary,” Singleton writes in an email. “We have been approached by various broadcasters, but felt that the ‘standard talking head’ format was becoming increasingly cookie cutter and uncreative. We therefore approached Toby Amies, an independent filmmaker, and asked him to make an original music documentary. To reimagine the format. And gave him complete creative freedom to do so. So the film is really sanctioned by the band only in as much as they set the ball rolling and gave Toby the access and interviews he requested. Thereafter they happily ceded all creative control. Musicians are well accustomed to the problems that come with outside attempts to control their creativity, so this was an area they all understood well.”
“A grown-up documentary showing the lives of King Crimson’s working players during 2018–2019,” Fripp tells Rolling Stone in an email when asked for his impression of the film. “The rock & roll lifestyle of glamour and excess in fine detail, including getting on and off buses, living and dying, resentment, a little humor, and even some music.”
In a director’s statement, Amies explains how he knew very little about the band before he embarked on the project.
“Music means the world to me. But I was innocent of King Crimson when on Christmas Eve 2017 Robert Fripp (a fan of my first feature documentary, The Man Whose Mind Exploded) suggested we make a film. A film about what King Crimson is, in advance of the band’s fiftieth anniversary,” he writes. “I accepted the challenge with no idea of how hard that would be to make. I wanted to make a movie to understand what it felt like to be in King Crimson, both then and now. That’s a difficult and complicated process for everyone involved. The film documents that, and I want the audience to have a sense of what a high-pressure creative environment feels like, and what that can do to the individuals who enter it.
“I hope that the film resonates with musicians and anyone who has made hard sacrifices to come even a little closer to making something extraordinary, even transcendent,” he continues. “There’s something very beautiful and inspiring about a band who are still willing to take risks, make mistakes and challenge themselves even as time catches up with them.”
In the Court of the Crimson King will premiere next month at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.