Wish You Were Here represents many things in the Pink Floyd canon. It was the demanding follow-up to the massive success of Dark Side of the Moon. Its creation stoked the struggle between bassist Roger Waters and guitarist David Gilmour that would ultimately undo the band. Even with the benefit of hindsight and sales exceeding thirteen million, the album is often overlooked in the shadow of The Wall. Nonetheless, consideration reveals Wish You Were Here to be Pink Floyd’s most focused artistic statement, even while it examines the separate themes of Waters’ struggle against the machinery of the music industry and the still-open wound caused by the absence of band founder and friend Syd Barrett. It also includes the band’s most accessible and enduring single in the form of the album’s title cut, a melancholy ghost colored by country-strummed acoustic guitars, Waters’ heartfelt lyric and Gilmour’s singable blues licks.
This documentary tells the stories behind the album in striking detail, using the words of the four principal band members themselves. Waters, Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason provide fresh interviews, and late keyboardist Richard Wright is included via footage from 2001. The film is bookended by footage of the band’s breathtaking 2005 reunion (after twenty-four acrimonious years) at Live 8, with the song “Wish You Were Here” dedicated to all the dearly departed and absent – and as Waters touchingly put it, “especially for Syd.” The interview footage makes clear that Barrett’s acid-casualty slip into dementia robbed the world of a bright spark, creative force, and beloved companion.
The film also drives home the view that none of the band believe that Pink Floyd would have existed or succeeded without Barrett’s foundational influence. The story of Barrett’s unexpected appearance during a Wish You Were Here mixing session is heartbreaking, and describes how Waters and Gilmour were driven to tears by the experience. A photo from the session underscores how lost and absent Barrett had become, even to himself.
In addition to the album’s broader themes, the film delves into the album’s material song by song. Waters reveals his original feelings and intentions behind the lyrics, and describes how they have changed over time. Gilmour recalls finding his way to the four-note guitar pattern which birthed the epic “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond.” Wright’s masterful piano arrangements and elegant, forward-thinking synthesizer embellishments are spotlighted. Visual artist Storm Thorgerson and animator Gerald Scarfe reminisce about their important contributions to the work. Ronnie Rondell, the Hollywood stuntman pictured in flames on Thorgerson’s famous cover photo tells his story. Managers, producers, photographers, and even the background singers have their say.
Perhaps the most controversial contribution to the film comes from Roy Harper, a band contemporary who sang lead vocal on “Have a Cigar” when both Waters and Gilmour were having difficulty finding the right approach. It’s apparent that the Floyd members retain singed feelings over the intrusion, while Harper feels snubbed that most people believe Waters himself is singing the track.
Despite the famous rift among the band’s principals and the telling fact that none of them are interviewed together for this film, all of them speak with unwavering respect for the talents and skills represented by the others. Mason, in particular, notes that without the conflict, Pink Floyd would likely be only a footnote rather than a leading light of the rock pantheon. At 85 minutes, the film is concise and compelling, and ignites new appreciation for Wish You Were Here, which remains vital and relevant 35 years after its creation.