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Still Rolling: 40 Years of the Rolling Stones on Film – “The Rock and Roll Circus”

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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_rockandrollcircus.jpgThe Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus
Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg

The Film: In order to promote their new album “Beggars Banquet” (whose recording we watched yesterday), the Stones put on a televised concert in December of 1968 featuring themselves and a couple of friends, all set inside a big circus tent and featuring real circus performers like a trapeze artist and a fire eater. At least, that was the intention; the Stones were ultimately so displeased with the finished film that they didn’t release it for almost 30 years.

The Rolling Stones Are: Mick Jagger on vocals, Keith Richards on lead guitar, Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass, and, for the last time publicly, Brian Jones on maracas, rhythm and slide guitars. Looking a bit unsteady on his feet and meekly strumming his guitar, Jones is a striking and even unsettling physical contrast to the vivacious Jagger, who deploys his standard routine of preening and strutting (with the admittedly novel twist of peeling off his shirt at the coda of “Sympathy for the Devil” to reveal a large tattoo of Satan plastered across his chest). As in “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jones is totally inaudible (save for some slide work on “No Expectations”) and he is physically isolated from the rest of the band; in this case, cloistered all the way to the extreme right of the stage while the rest of the band stands together on stage left. It looks like he’s got a disease and the rest of the Stones are afraid of catching it. Jones’ performance and those from other musicians at the Circus who would go on to die young lends the film what Janet Maslin quite accurately described in her 1996 New York Times review as an “accidental poignancy.”

With Special Guest Stars: The Stones’ set is preceded by performances from a young Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull and a supergroup called The Dirty Mac consisting of John Lennon on vocals, Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Keith Richards on bass, and Yoko Ono on shrieks and burlap sack. But best of all are The Who, who perform a turbo-charged rendition of “A Quick One While He’s Away.” On his DVD commentary track, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg acknowledges the rumor that the film was long kept out of circulation because the Stones were unhappy with their performance specifically as it compared to this unforgettable appearance by The Who. Though he doesn’t confirm that’s the reason it was ultimately kept from the public, he doesn’t exactly deny it either.

Best Performances: The Stones do pale in the face of the thunderous might of The Who, in part because their performance was delivered at the end of a marathon 15-hour shoot. Even the indefatigable Jagger looks visibly groggy as the Stones kick off their portion of the show with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But once the adrenaline starts flowing, they make out just fine, particularly on the then-unreleased “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” with particularly emphatic vocals from Jagger (and tons of flirting with the camera). Speaking of which…

You Can’t Always Get What You Want: According to Lindsay-Hogg, the Stones wanted “a band which was not yet famous” to kick off the “Rock and Roll Circus” and ultimately selected Jethro Tull to fill the spot. But before you give the band too much credit for their foresight and prescience, consider this — in picking Jethro Tull, they turned down another young band, because, according to Lindsay-Hogg, their sound struck Jagger as “very guitary.” That runner-up? Led Zeppelin. Oops.

Keith Richards is Weird: All of the Stones wear goofy, circus-themed outfits, but Keith’s getup is from a circus on Mars or something. He wears a top hat and jacket with no shirt (though, strangely, he does have a shirt collar), along with an eye patch, perhaps an indication of the impending pirate costumes that would help define his look as well as Johnny Depp’s in a certain later Disney movie. Best of all? He smokes an enormous cigar as he encourages the audience to “dig” The Who. Keith Richards is weird. Then again, the worst outfit of the night belongs to Eric Clapton, rocking a grandma sweater so absurdly polychromatic it makes Bill Cosby’s wardrobe in the 1980s look comparatively subdued.

Aftermath: An opening quotation from author David Dalton says that the “Rock-and-Roll Circus” “in many ways [captures] the spontaneity, aspirations and communal spirit of the entire era.” Fair enough; it also captures some of its pervasive druggy weirdness, for both good and bad. It’s the sort of devil-may-care creative energy that might bring together talented musicians like John Lennon and Eric Clapton, only to have them play second fiddle to a woman wailing incoherently at the top of her lungs. Plus, even when the performances sparkle, the film itself is a bit of a mess; lots of Jethro Tull’s performance is overlit and out of focus, and great sections of the other supporting acts are marred by giant blobs of gunk floating on the edges of the camera lens. Whether you consider these markings of rock and roll authenticity or hazy, disinterested sloppiness may depend on your perspective on this particular endeavor; from my seat, it’s sort of an interesting piece of history, a couple of great performances, and not much of a concert film. The Stones could, and would, do better.

[Photo: “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” ABKCO, 1996]

Part 1: “Sympathy for the Devil”
Part 3: “Gimme Shelter”

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