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Still Rolling: 40 Years of The Rolling Stones on Film – “Sympathy for the Devil”

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By Matt Singer

In honor of their 40 years on movie screens, from 1968’s “Sympathy for the Devil” to last week’s release of “Shine a Light,” we’re taking a look at The Rolling Stones’ filmography, featuring enough collaborations with great directors to make any actor jealous and enough abandoned or aborted projects to give any movie investor heartburn.

04082008_sympathyforthedevil1.jpgSympathy for the Devil (1968)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

The Film: Godard captures the Stones during the recording sessions for “Beggars Banquet” in the summer of 1968 and charts the evolution of the song “Sympathy for the Devil” through a series of uninterrupted long takes. The Stones’ progress is intercut with a series of vignettes about, amongst other things, black revolutionaries, an interview with a woman named “Eve Democracy,” graffiti artists defacing public property with sarcastic slogans like “Cinemarxism” and “Freudemocracy,” and a bookstore where people pay for their purchases of pornography and comic books by giving the shopkeeper a Nazi salute. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 1960s.

The Rolling Stones are: Mick Jagger on vocals and percussion, Keith Richards on guitar and bass, Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass and percussion and Brian Jones on guitar. It’s the classic Stones lineup that first brought the group worldwide fame, but by this point, it was already close to the end. Jones, increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol, found his role in the band he started and, as legend has it, named (after glancing at a Muddy Waters album cover) shrinking. “Sympathy for the Devil” contains no interviews or commentary from the Stones, so a lot is left to interpretation; in light of Jones’ firing from the group almost one year to the day from the events depicted in the film, it’s easy to read a subtext into almost all of his appearances. Though Jones has moments of connection with the rest of the Stones, as in a scene where he shares a cigarette and some chit-chat with Keith Richards, most of the time he seems isolated from his bandmates. In some shots, he’s playing acoustic guitar and there’s no microphone set up to record him; in others, he’s got a microphone, but his audio is buried deep beneath Richards’ electric guitar riffs. During one scene, he delivers his take completely surrounded by veritable cage of soundproofing, an eerie representation of his outsider status. Shortly thereafter, he vanishes from the sessions completely.

With Special Guest Stars: The Stones are the only musical performers in the film, but in a key scene — the first time we hear “Sympathy” with the trademark chorus of “woo-woos!” — the camera pans behind Mick Jagger to reveal the refrain being sung by a group that includes Richards, Jones, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg, though according to Wikipedia, the scene was phony, staged specifically for the camera.

Best Performance: My favorite moment comes near the end of the film,when the band and several studio musicians are jamming on an instrumental. Godard’s camera glides past the guys and passes behind some soundproofing to spot a mysterious woman in a black suit, quietly tapping in rhythm on top of an upright piano. She gives a suggestive glance to the camera and eventually disappears behind the soundproofing panels as the band comes back into view.

04082008_sympathyforthedevil2.jpgYou Can’t Always Get What You Want: Although the film hypothetically follows “Sympathy for the Devil” from its earliest incarnation to its finished form, Godard omits the crucial moments where the song transforms from a slower ballad into its classic, percussive boogie.

Keith Richards is Weird: Actually, to be fair, Keith Richards is pretty normal in this picture (especially when compared with some of the stuff we’ll be seeing in the coming days), and his creativity and musical talent is never on better display in any of the Stones’ movies as when he casually teases out the memorable “Sympathy” guitar solo in between takes. But consider this: In this film, and all the movies from this period, he’s credited as “Keith Richard” without the “s.” Though no definitive reason has ever been given for the temporary name change (Keith changed it back in the mid-’70s), it is said that it might have been done for cosmetic purposes. One website even claims that Stones management thought Richard-without-the-“s” was “more hip.” It was also exactly one letter easier to spell.

Aftermath: “Sympathy for the Devil” was made during a particularly political period of Godard’s career, and the half of the movie that dives into those waters is now almost entirely divorced from whatever contemporary relevance it had. At times, it’s difficult to tell what was intended sincerely and what was intended satirically; the “Eve Democracy” segment, with its absurd interview questions (“Does marijuana do something to the sense of time?” “On LSD, do you begin to die a little?” “Is it urgent to replace the word culture with another one?”) and one-word responses (“Yes” to all of the above) strikes me as particularly ambiguous. Today, the effect of all this weirdness is to cast the Rolling Stones in an unusually serious light. While a generation seems to be collectively losing their minds outside the studio, inside its soundproof walls, the band goes about its business with a pragmatic attitude.

It’s possible to read the movie as a comparison between different segments of the youth movement who might hold up the Rolling Stones (as a call to arms for Satan on the one hand, or as an example of white oppressors stealing black culture on the other) and the band itself, which doesn’t seem to be concerned with anything except making a catchy pop tune. As mentioned earlier, even though he’s recording the creation of a single song from start to finish, Godard doesn’t seem terribly concerned with fully charting its progress, leaving out the seemingly crucial period where its tempo congeals into the state we’d eventually come to know it as, and refusing to include a finished version of the track. He’s ultimately more interested in the act of creation than what ultimately gets created — an idea he echoes in the way he repeatedly cuts away from his graffiti artists before they can complete their tags.

[Photos: “Sympathy for the Devil,” New Line Cinema, 1970]

Part 2: “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus”
Part 3: “Gimme Shelter”

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