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Still Rolling: 40 Years of the Rolling Stones on Film – “Cocksucker Blues” and “Shine a Light”

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By Matt Singer

In honor of their 40 years on movie screens, starting with 1968’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” and continuing on with “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” and 1970’s “Gimme Shelter,” 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. In our final tour date, we offer the rarely screened “Cocksucker Blues” and an encore featuring the Stones’ most recent cinematic return to the stage, “Shine a Light.”

04112008_cocksuckerblues.jpgCocksucker Blues (1972)
Directed by Robert Frank

The Film: Returning to the United States for their first American tour since 1969 (covered in all its glory and tragedy in “Gimme Shelter”), the Stones hired filmmaker Robert Frank to document the trip. Frank gave cameras to all the members of the band to record their own experiences, and then edited their footage together on his own. Though the ’72 tour is widely considered one of the Stones’ best, “Cocksucker Blues” is less a chronicle of the band’s rock and roll triumph than of their druggy attempts to stave off boredom in between performances. Those indiscretions includes on-camera masturbation by Mick Jagger, trashed hotel rooms, ruminations on the impossibility of cocaine addiction (“It’s just too expensive to develop a habit!” remarks one incredibly high moron) and an inflight group orgy on the Stones’ private jet. According to Rolling Stone, when Jagger saw the result for the first time, he remarked, “It’s a beautiful film, Robert, but if it ever shows in America, we’ll never be allowed there again.” Frank battled the Stones for control of the film, but the best he ever got was the right to screen it once a year as long as he was in attendance.

The Rolling Stones Are:…still Jagger, Richards, Taylor, Wyman, and Watts, but their entourage has swelled to huge proportions with all manners of roadies, groupies and a full horn section to blast away on songs like “Brown Sugar.” Jagger even brings along his first wife Bianca, who, in one scene that speaks volumes about their relationship come tour time, glumly and silently listens to a music box in her hotel room.

With Special Guests: Eagle-eyed viewers will spot Andy Warhol snapping pictures of the band, and Truman Capote and Tina Turner hanging out backstage. But that all pales before the musical hurting Stevie Wonder puts on the Stones, first on his own “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and then when he joins the band for an absolutely crazy version of “Satisfaction.”

Best Performance: As mentioned earlier, “Cocksucker Blues” contains few musical performances, and even fewer complete ones. But there are fiery bits of “Street Fighting Man” and “Midnight Rambler” and a raucous version of “Happy,” no doubt included for the peppy, ironic counterpoint it provides to the tedium of life on the road that the majority of the documentary details.

04112008_cocksuckerblues2.jpgYou Can’t Always Get What You Want: Since the film can only be screened with Frank in attendance, the only way to really watch it is on a well-worn bootleg. The one I found had long since lost most of its color and clarity. Plenty of scenes are blurry messes of blue and white splotches, and often it’s hard to tell who’s doing what act of debauchery. On the other hand, the disorienting effect caused by too many bad dubs approximates the experience of being lost in a dope fog with the Stones quite nicely.

Keith Richards is Weird: Though we don’t really see Richards doing much of anything wrong in “Cocksucker Blues” (as a general rule, most of the worst behavior comes from the entourage, not the band itself), the evidence of his worsening drug addiction is on full display. In one sequence backstage after a concert, Frank’s camera keeps moving from room to room, and each time it returns to check on Richards, he’s slumped lower and lower, until he’s passed out in the lap of a groupie. Later, a deeply confused Richards tries to finagle some fresh fruit out of an unhelpful room service operator. After failing to communicate his desire for some apples, he nearly gives up; “This is too complicated!” he moans. Near the end of the film, he performs that great ritual of rock band excess &151; he tosses his television off his hotel room balcony. In four Stones documentaries, I’ve never seen Keith laugh so hard.

Aftermath: Drugs helped to ruin the Stones’ good intentions at Altamont and by 1972, they’d completely erased whatever political idealism the band had. The contrast is shocking. In “Gimme Shelter,” the most prominently featured audience member is handing out pamphlets supporting the Black Panther party. In “Cocksucker Blues,” the most talkative fan complains to Frank that the state’s taken her child away just because she likes to drop acid. (“So what? He was born on acid!” she boasts.) Altamont was a free concert. but outside one of the venues in ’72, Frank finds a scalper boasting about how much money he’s making off the band.

It’s easy to see why The Stones didn’t want the public getting their hands on such footage, but you have to wonder why they’d let Frank record all the excess in the first place. Then again, given how excessive the excess was, maybe they weren’t in the right frame of mind when they made the decision. In an interview reprinted on Shock Cinema‘s website, Frank suggests that the Stones didn’t really want him to shoot them, but they liked having him around because his friend had good connections for dope, so they acquiesced. He also acknowledged that the infamous private plane sequence where the roadies forcefully strip some groupies naked while the band approvingly pounds on some hand drums was staged after he complained that nothing ever happened on their flights. That made me rethink the chuckle I had over the film’s opening disclaimer: “Except for the musical numbers, the events depicted in this film are fictitious. No representation of actual persons or events is intended.”

To be sure, the footage is scandalous and at times, pornographic, at least in the legal sense. Still, if I were the band now, I’d strike a new print, release the movie on DVD, complete with extras that contextualize the film (and explain away all the worst bits as things that were also staged). In 2008, their image as the greatest rock and roll band in the world comprised of rocking grandfathers could probably use the edgy publicity.

04112008_shinealight.jpgShine a Light (2008)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

The Film: In the fall of 2006, The Rolling Stones played a series of concerts at New York City’s Beacon Theater to benefit former President Clinton’s foundation. They invited director Martin Scorsese — who hadn’t made a concert documentary since “The Last Waltz,” almost 30 years earlier — to film the shows and turn them into an IMAX documentary. Scorsese inserts a mélange of archival interview footage from the band’s long career between every couple of songs. The most commonly asked question: When will the Stones hang it up? In one clip, Dick Cavett asks Mick Jagger if he can imagine himself still playing when he’s 60. “Easily,” he says without a moment’s hesitation. Cut to Jagger, age 63, rocking the Beacon to “Brown Sugar.” As he did for “The Last Waltz,” Scorsese recruited a veritable murderers’ row of cinematographers to operate his seventeen cameras, including Robert Richardson, Robert Elswit, Ellen Kuras, Emmanuel Lubezki, John Toll and Albert Maysles. It’s not the Stones’ first IMAX experience either — 1990’s “Live at the Max” anyone?

The Rolling Stones Are: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, with Ronnie Wood on guitar. A few years after the tour seen in “Cocksucker Blues,” Mick Taylor left the group because of a dispute with Jagger and Richards over writing credits. Wood, then a member of the Faces, had filled in for Taylor and began recording and touring with the Stones, and eventually joined full-time after the Faces broke up in 1975. As for former bassist Bill Wyman, he left the Stones in 1993 to start his own band, the Rhythm Kings. He’s never been officially replaced.

With Special Guests: The Stones are joined on stage by guests during three numbers — Jack White shares vocals and acoustic guitar duties with Jagger on “Loving Cup,” Christina Aguilera sings and dirty dances with Jagger on “Live With Me,” and best of all, Buddy Guy joins the guys for Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer.” Guy’s no spring chicken (he turns 72 later this year) and he absolutely wipes the floor with the rest of the geezers on stage. It’s the one must-download song from the soundtrack.

Best Performance: There’s a few other strong numbers besides Guy’s to choose from: the set list runs 18 tracks and there are very few duds. Of the old standards, the best is probably “Sympathy for the Devil,” if only for the showmanship of Jagger, who’s spent a couple songs offstage while Richards warbled a few ditties, and bursts through the backdoors of the orchestra section as he announces “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.”

04112008_shinealight2.jpgYou Can’t Always Get What You Want: Though Scorsese has used “Gimme Shelter” on the soundtrack of three of his films, it doesn’t appear in “Shine a Light.” Also, given President Clinton’s role in the concerts and his appearance early in the film hanging out with the band, was it too much to ask for him to join them onstage? He’d be perfect for the sax solo in “Brown Sugar.”

Keith Richards is Weird: Well, right off, his ensemble is weird. He’s got a Silent Bob coat with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” pin and a weird schmata — it’s not a hat, it’s not a bandana — hanging off his head, and the full regalia of earrings and beads and who knows what else. It’s also curious to note that, at 62, Richards is far more active on the stage than he ever was back in the ’60s and ’70s. Obviously, wireless technology has made some of that possible; but watching the Richards of “Gimme Shelter” — who was nearly as stiff as the positively Lurchish Bill Wyman — it’s hard to believe he’s the same guy in “Shine a Light” who gets down on his knees to tease the front row, tosses guitar picks to fans mid-solo and strolls over to Ronnie Wood to lean on his shoulder every now and then. This, too, is weird, but like most of Richards’ antics, it’s endearingly so.

Aftermath: Scorsese’s involvement necessitates comparisons to “The Last Waltz” which are hard to live up to. After all, that was a concert commemorating the end of a band (The Band, technically). In Scorsese’s eyes at least, the moment was something of an end of an era as well. Though “Shine a Light” is a similarly structured concert doc from the same director, it’s tonally quite different. As the interviews in “Shine a Light” stress, the Rolling Stones have never and probably will never quit. Members have died, members have gotten ill and come back, members have taken more drugs than Scarface, but the band has persevered. The movie, then, is less about something ending than something that is endless. And why shouldn’t such a movie be in IMAX, where every wrinkle is clear as crystal? It’s a testament to longevity. These guys are like war vets showing off their scars.

Scorsese offers no reason why the Stones have carried on for so long; I think we need only look to their biggest hit. Only a band in such a perpetual state of dissatisfaction would still be doing this shit well into retirement age. It’s not the greatest concert doc I’ve ever seen; it’s not even the best movie I’ve seen starring The Rolling Stones this week. But with their tickets now going for upwards of $100 a pop, it’s a pretty good deal. You’ll never get a seat this good at a live Stones concert.

[Photos: “Cocksucker Blues,” Robert Frank, 1972; “Shine a Light,” Paramount Vantage, 2008]

Part 1: “Sympathy for the Devil”
Part 2: “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus”
Part 3: “Gimme Shelter”

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