Friday, October 3, 2014

Review: Jimi: All is By My Side

[Note: This was a film review first published on Joyless Creatures here.]

Like Deep Impact and Armageddon, right behind the James Brown biopic Get on Up is Jimi: All is By My Side. Starring Andre Benjamin (better known to many as Andre 3000 of OutKast), All is By My Side vividly recreates the slang and fashions of 1966 London, while only rarely falling into the trap of rock nostalgia clichés and, in fact, ends up becoming a celebration of the purity and fearlessness of Hendrix’s approach to music.

There are a few films that stand out in relation to Jimi: All is By My Side.
One is the 1995 film Backbeat, which covered the early, pre-songwriting
days of the Beatles, therefore avoiding mammoth Lennon/McCartney licensing
fees. The Hendrix family estate, which is notoriously protective of Jimi’s
catalog, refused to allow any songs in All is By My Side. Subsequently the
 film has to skip over some musical bits when showing the recording of the
 first album Are You Experienced? but otherwise the lack of Hendrix
compositions is not a major flaw in this film.

The other film this reminds me of is Velvet Goldmine, where David Bowie
notoriously forbade any of his songs on the soundtrack, marking a keen
absence in a film that is basically about his life. Like Velvet Goldmine,
Jimi has a narrative threadbare quality and does not shy away from the
ugly side of its subject’s behavior.
The movie is also distinguished in that it gives almost equal time to female
roles. Imogen Poots is Linda Keith, the teenage model who first discovered
quiet guitarist Jimmy James playing backup for Curtis Knight & the Squires
to an audience of a dozen people. Keith, then the girlfriend of Rolling Stones
guitarist Keith Richards, tries to enlist the help of their manager Andrew
“Loog” Oldham, who pronounces him “rubbish.” Keith is tenacious and goes
through every connection she has in the music industry. No one is interested
except Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), bassist for the Animals, who is
planning to quit and manage some new acts. He knows the blues and realizes
 that Jimi is something special. Before long, he has managed to convince a
reluctant Hendrix to go to England, where white audiences are more receptive
 to black blues players.

Jimi and Linda have a connection, but it is promptly cut off when Kathy
Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a hairdresser, enters the picture. Theirs is a
romance that has its shares of troubles. Director John Ridley does a great job
making each of these women full, rounded characters—yes, Kathy is portrayed
as sometimes frivolous and in love with her partner’s rock n roll stardom, she is
also acutely human, capable of warmth and understanding, not always jealous or
mean-spirited or soul-sucking as these types of roles tend to be. Atwell does a great
job inhabiting the part.

The main acting accolades, of course, have to go to Andre, perhaps my
favorite musician of the past 20 years. He had been rumored to be working
on the role longer than a decade ago, and now at 39, he is a great deal older
than the part—a decade and a half at least. But being far past Hendrix’s age
was probably a minor challenge, compared to other difficulties.

One thing about Hendrix that makes him so amazing to watch, and one of the
few guitar geniuses that no one can really imitate, is that he was left-handed,
but played a right-handed guitar upside down. Benjamin is right-handed and
switching to a left-handed guitar is no easy thing, let alone playing it upside
down. According to Benjamin, who actually is a guitar player (of limited skill,
by his own admission), it took months of grueling practice to mime the parts
in this film. He is not actually playing, but he did master the fingering to look
like a reasonable facsimile, and that by itself is almost as difficult. Imagine
being asked to play exactly like Mozart, but on a piano whose keys are inverted,
while hanging upside down. That should give you a general idea of the level of
difficulty here.
Then there’s the additional factor that Hendrix played these difficult guitar parts
 with such ease and confidence. Making all of his performances look natural and
unrehearsed must have been the hardest part. Benjamin even kept in character
during the entire Dublin shoot, speaking to Ridley and his fellow actors in Hendrix’s
 dated hippie-dippie slang. All of this is Daniel Day-Lewis-level commitment and far
 more than I ever expected from 3000 as an actor.

This fan of Hendrix’s guitar-playing appreciates that so much time was put into
making Andre’s fretwork look authentic. Often in music biopics, the actors, no
matter how much they embody the part, look less than convincing playing
instruments onstage. Benjamin’s past as a charismatic rapper and performer
comes in handy here. Considering Hendrix was so dedicated to pushing forward
 the guitar as a sonic instrument of infinite variety and capacity, it makes sense
that the film would put so much care into making the playing look and sound authentic.

Overall, it’s an uncanny impersonation, not just because Andre looks the part
somewhat. There are some things that even Benjamin cannot emulate—he
doesn’t possess Hendrix’s giant hands, for instance—but he changes his entire
voice, losing the nasal southern tones we associate so heavily with OutKast,
and replaces that with Hendrix’s pacific northwest gilt, his protruding lower
lip, and his overall soft voice and booming tone. Late in the film there is the
famous performance of the Experience doing an almost punk version of “Sgt.
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” two days after the album release, in front
of an audience that included the Beatles. I have seen this performance many
times in various rock documentaries and was amazed at Benjamin’s
impersonation, his commitment to the moments I remember like moving up
the fret board with the palm of his hand, telling the audience to “cover your
ears,” the part where he throws the cigarette down just before singing—
overall, it was an uncanny recreation of the television experience. You can
see in this scene how Hendrix and Benjamin, though very different types of
artists, approach their music with a similar purity of intention.
This is normal subject matter in biopics, but Ridley does a great job illuminating
 his subject’s flaws while not ever treating them as the unfortunate but necessary
 affectations of the “genius artist.” Ridley portrays Hendrix as inarticulate at times
 and sometimes too quick to resort to stock hippie phrases like “when the power of
 love overcomes the love of power,” at one point rambling about aliens to a groupie.
 Race is not a major factor in the film, but it does come up a few times as Hendrix is
 accosted by British police and meets with radical drug dealer Michael X, who
describes the history of segregation in London and asks the guitarist to be a symbol
 to the black British as Hendrix tries to demure, saying “that’s not my bag, man.”
The subtext here, as is common throughout the film, is Hendrix’s relationship with
white women and his unease with African-American audiences.

In fact, Ridley’s script goes deep into Hendrix’s psyche. There is of course the matter
of his absent mother, which fed his idealized conceptions of the women he slept with,
as well as a distant, terrorizing father. Ridley also implies that Hendrix might have had
depression, social anxiety, acute fear of conflict, as well as violent mood swings and
dependency (both chemical and physical) issues. On the other hand, his generally mild
demeanor belied a lot of confidence about his guitar skills (as well it should). This is
most hilariously expressed in the scene where Eric Clapton invites Hendrix to play
Howlin’ Wolf’s “Killing Floor” (a song he would later massacre at the Monterey
Pop Festival) with Cream onstage, and unplugs his guitar and walks out upon
realizing he is no longer needed.

The film is meandering at times, focusing on intimate and small moments in
 Hendrix’s everyday conversations with women, while other parts are formula
 biopic, such as when Jimi’s Monterey Pop Festival gig is put on notice after he
 spends an entire performance tuning his guitar. Thankfully, by only spending a
 year early in Hendrix’s career, we are spared the common narrative of his
drug-fueled spiral and eventual death. In fact, All is By My Side ends on a happy
 note, as Benjamin-as-Hendrix tries to explain to his audience his pure and
transcendent love for music, and how he hopes it has the power to inspire
others. Maybe it’s not the note of realism that a typical biopic would choose to
end on (that would be a scene of Hendrix asphyxiating on barbiturates), but it
honors the musician’s spirit perhaps more than any other ending. For once, a
musical biopic is as much about the music as the man. I can dig.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Stones on Film: A Quick Break

We will be pausing our feature Stones on Film briefly in order to finish the remaining few installments. In the meantime, the Minneapolis film blog Joyless Creatures has been posting some of the highlights of this series, including Sympathy for the Devil and Gimme Shelter. In non-music related matters,  I have recently begun reviewing films for the site, here and here. Back shortly.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Stones on Film Week Seven: Cocksucker Blues (1972)

Directed by: Robert Frank
Available: Nowhere

You are reading Stones on Film, a 13-part dialogue covering notable Rolling Stones documentary and concert films through a critical lens. Today is week seven. Archive here.

AM: Starting with an odd disclaimer stating that the events in the film are fictitious, Cocksucker Blues is a bluish blur of the Rolling Stones’ traveling circus as it stood in 1972. There’s groupie sex, on-camera heroin use, and the grinding boredom of touring life.

I actually wrote about this film for Rockaliser after my first viewing, in 2009 (the comments section features Nathan violently disagreeing with me about Sticky Fingers). I hit the typical beats--the band’s sybaritic lifestyle, the Jagger/Richards divide, the great music, the horrible misogyny. Given that these things dominate discussion of Cocksucker Blues, and that I already covered them (in the wordy, circuitous style I was taken with in 2009), I’ll try and avoid those and concentrate on the stray thoughts and questions that popped up as I watched the film.

But first, a couple paragraphs of context. Cocksucker Blues is the work of Robert Frank, whose eye for Americana led the Stones to use his photos on the cover of Exile. The footage here covers the 1972 tour of America, the first time the band had played in the country since Altamont. Frank basically loaned out cameras to the Stones entourage, and ran around shooting footage himself. Fans of high production values will be in agony at the extremely unstable, off-color cinematography here. To call it cinema verite or direct cinema is an affront to the talent of the people who filmed Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter.

When Frank emerged from his hole with a version of the film, Jagger reportedly said that he was worried it would get the group banned from America. Frank thought the public would find the Stones behavior “revolting.” One lawsuit later, Frank was only legally permitted to show the film five times a year, with the stipulation that he himself be present and the it be shown in the context of his work, not the Stones. (The Stones have loosened up about this in the last few years) The scarcity of the film--and the stories that grew up around it--led to Cocksucker Blues legendary status.

And it certainly doesn’t disappoint, in terms of prurient content. With an eye towards presenting the film in the context of the Stones work and world, five thoughts inspired by Cocksucker Blues:

  1. How absurd is it that the Stevie Wonder would open for the Stones? He was at least as big as the Stones, with two Number One hits in 1972 alone. Don’t get me wrong, seeing a young, sinewy Stevie launch into a Stonesified “Uptight” and seguing into “Satisfaction” is great. But he was in his auteur period at this point, and was huge. What does it say about the record business at the time that Stevie would have to open for a band who couldn’t score a hit in 1972? And why don’t we get any backstage interactions with Stevie? Did he partake in the Stones lifestyle?

It’s also interesting to plot Wonder’s evolution against the Stones’. Stevie was trying radical things, creating searching, spiritual music with synths. The Stones, for all their brilliance, were fucking around refining something they were already great at.

  1. Cocksucker Blues could not be more different from Stones In Exile. They cover roughly the same period, and Stones In Exile borrows footage from Frank’s film. But the slick professionalism of Stones In Exile is nowhere to be found here. Cocksucker Blues is like something you’d see mounted on a wall at an art gallery. It’s a bunch of context-less shards of their lifestyle. The camera will spin around a room, or cut to entirely different scenes while letting the audio track from that room play out. It probably captures the disorienting feeling of being inside this world better than a retrospective, talking head doc.

  1. There are tons of Spinal Tap moments here. None more so than the band’s long backstage march to the arena floor. It’s a half step away from this classic scene. What was your favorite?

  1. The excess is the appeal. Not breaking any ground here, but it needs to be said. Everytime I saw something sick--Keith nodding off, the band playing along to a woman being stripped of her clothes (possibly against her will), Mick rubbing his crotch and doing coke off a knife (separate scenes, those)--this thought struck me. You can watch it and think “lol rockstars”. You can watch it and say “it’s a historical record”. But this film became legendary because of the excess, the drug use and degradation. Why else would people still watch a shittily-shot and confusingly edited documentary about a band that features only a few, poorly-recorded concert snippets? The Stones tried to can a documentary that painted them as even more debauched than their quite debauched public profile. And then the rumors of that documentary further burnished their outlaw credentials, for good or ill.

  1. Just recording whatever’s in fashion that year. That, basically, is Mick’s response to a question about the recording of Exile. The band just records whatever’s in fashion that year. Doesn’t particularly make sense in the context of Exile, but it goes a long way towards explaining “Miss You,” Emotional Rescue and the shitty production values (and color palettes) that the Stones later embraced. Those weren’t artistic evolutions, that was Jagger willing the band to keep up with the times.

What do you think of the track “Cocksucker Blues,” by the way? I’m a fan of the full band version, myself, which you don’t hear in the film. The one we get here is spare and weirdly beautiful, a song about assfucking in the style of “Gates of Eden”.

For the record, the least Spinal Tap moment in the film features Charlie, sitting by himself in a hotel room and watching a TV commercial for Excedrin. Poor Charlie.

NS: Apart from perhaps Four Flicks, Cocksucker Blues is the Stones’ most difficult-to-watch contribution to celluloid. There is very little context for what is going on throughout, which consequently makes this film hard to review. Scenes and images go by, some of which are memorable, but there is no continuity or greater idea holding scenes together. It has no beginning or ending, nor any internal structure at all, really. It provides glimpses into the Stones’ backstage lifestyle, includes flashes of various drugs, sexual situations, and celebrities, and then ends abruptly.

You said “fans of high production value will be in agony.” I would broaden that category to fans of remotely passable sound quality. Maybe it was the version I saw, but Cocksucker Blues has frustrating sound throughout, juxtaposing live dialogue with TV and radio narrations as well as bits of live and studio Stones recordings, mainly from Exile. These sound collages are often random and make it even more difficult to tell what is going on. By comparison, the occasional mangled-sounding narration in Godard’s film is not even a distraction. Often the dialogue does not fit with the mouths of the actors, and the sound is clearly out of sync with the video throughout many non-Jagger shots in the live scenes.

You referred to what appears to be an amazingly dynamic Stones and Stevie Wonder live performance, where they do the “Everything’s Alright”/”Satisfaction” medley with Jim Price and Bobby Keys on brass. At least it appears to be--the film’s sound only gives hints of the gloriousness that audience goers were able to behold, I am sure. The young, skinny Wonder’s energy is infectious, but everything sounds tinny and blocked. My father owns many a Stones bootleg that sounds better than this.

It does not surprise me that Stevie Wonder would be opening for the Stones at this stage in his career. Remember that Wonder, for all his longevity, was still a “Black” act. He did well, but opening for the Stones put him in front of stadium crowds, which was a level I am not sure he could achieve on his own in 1972. I imagine that is what prompted many of the older bluesmen to open for the Stones as well. It was possibly the largest platform that many of these artists would ever get. Incidentally one of the more memorable parts of the film shows Muddy Waters and the band playing pool, and Muddy laughing at a terrible shot by Charlie.

The depravity in Cocksucker Blues reaches near-snuff film levels at times. We have commented on the thread through many of these documentaries where the Stones have repressed them, North Korea-style, but in this case I can very much see where the Stones were coming from. Even Robert Frank agrees that the Stones look appalling. Surely he must have known this as he was filming, right? Jagger seems specifically inhuman for the way in which he sort of glides through the naked, barely-conscious groupies philosophizing and professing his boredom and gradual dislike of the extended Stones entourage. The other members of the band, like Mick Taylor, are no better (at one point Taylor barges into the room of a naked groupie to smoke her joint--this is among the more casual scenes of groupies).

I can’t help but wonder how various celebrities like Andy Warhol, Dick Cavett, and Tina Turner thought about being included in the film. Possibly another motivation for suppressing the film, as well as its opening disclaimer (“no representation of actual persons or events is intended”). Relatedly, my personal favorite Spinal Tap-type moment is when Dick Cavett attempts to interview the group, and instead admit to his audience he only got Bill Wyman.

I think there is room for a great documentary about the bacchanalian backstage behavior of rock stars and their treatment toward women. This isn’t it; not even close. Some of the situations described in the film are truly shocking. Heroin use, right in front of the camera, abounds (not from Keith, though. Guess he was careful). A woman talks about how her child was taken away from her because of her acid use. She threatens to kill herself and says “my life is already half-wrecked.” This is heartbreaking stuff. The viewer instinctively wants to reach out and help this woman. How come no one filming seems concerned? As far as I can tell Robert Frank chose to shoot these vile situations for no other reason other than exploitative glee, or perhaps for “historical value”--all a matter of perspective, I guess.

How much pleasure were you able to glean from the live scenes? It is difficult to tell, but the 1972 tour marks another sort of musical turn of for the band, where the Stones started taking a more extended jam route. Led Zeppelin was the most popular group in the world and even artists like the Stones were paying attention, not that they would admit it. Check out the breakdown in the version of “Midnight Rambler” and watch at how the band members look at each other; they are trying to stretch the song out in new directions and are unsure where to go (look at Taylor’s face).

Today I view Cocksucker Blues as sort of the filmic equivalent of Robert Frank’s photographs in Exile’s liner notes. The photographs look impressive, but they are meant to be a supplement to the album. The photos do not convey any larger or coherent meaning because they are meant to look good. So is the case of Cocksucker Blues. Except ultimately  it does not look very good. Or sound very good. Refresh me: what good reasons are there to preserve this film again? You said “the excess is the appeal,” but are there parts of the film that are actually appealing?

AM: stars then?

Say what you will about the Stones, but they did have some great opening acts on the American tours. Stevie Wonder, Ike and Tina, even Prince. Then again, they apparently brought along also-rans The Groundhogs and Merlin on their 1971 UK Tour. Perhaps that’s why Mick called that jaunt “sad” in Stones In Exile.

But back to Cocksucker Blues. The best reason to preserve the film is because destroying docs is like destroying books. It just shouldn’t be done. That doesn’t mean this is a good documentary. I go to school with a bunch of folks who study documentary production, and I can assure you that it is Gimme Shelter and not Cocksucker Blues that they study.

If there’s value to Cocksucker Blues, it’s a few scenes of fleeting interest. Seeing Charlie struggle at billiards brought a smile to my face. The Cavett moment you point out is great. There’s also (one assumes) a large cache of unseen footage documenting this time. It’s a primary source--maybe for a better documentary, or the history books, or what have you.

It sounds like my copy of the film was slightly higher quality that yours. I enjoyed all the musical numbers. The fidelity isn’t great, but the songs were the high points.

A quick rundown: “Jumping Jack Flash” is ferocious, Exiled-out with horns and the counterpoint of the hyperactive Jagger against the motionless Taylor. “Midnight Rambler” is excerpted, but we get Jagger crouched and gradually rising as Richards and Taylor trade death blows on their guitars. “All Down The Line” is sweaty, with Taylor going wild. “Happy” is barbed, transformed into a duet between Richards and Jagger. And the “Uptight/Satisfaction” is a joy.

During these performances, we barely glimpse the audience. Who were these people? The wrecked life of an acid-eating mother is about all we get, and it’s sensationalistic. It would have affirmed every fear of the American Right, had this movie been released.

There seems to be very little interest in the little people, generally. That includes Wyman, Taylor and Watts, but the audiences most of all. Maybe that’s a relic of Charlie Is My Darling-era bad memories, or Rock God aloofness. But it’s hard to miss that the Stones and their retinue don’t seem particularly grateful towards the folks subsidizing their lifestyle. I listened to an interview with Ian MacKaye yesterday, where he discussed the needless greed and bloat of the touring industry--and the Stones embody that more than anyone. Such arrogance and entitlement, even then. The scene where Mick kvetches about touring is particularly telling, as if he doesn’t have more power than anyone to set the tone of the tour.

Also--what’s Mick’s deal with American food? He says during that car ride that you can only eat well in the American South. Like that guy wasn’t eating like a king in New York and London.

Stepping back a bit, I couldn’t help but reflect on how easy it would be to make a film like this today. We carry around cameras in our pockets that put Frank’s equipment to shame. So why don’t we have people chronicling the tours of the twenty-first century? Has music really moved that far away from the center of our culture? Are the 2014 equivalents of Andy Warhol and Truman Capote hanging out backstage at the Yeezus tour?

Or maybe tour docs are just a bad idea--like songs about touring that aren’t “Memory Motel”. Maybe we don’t really want to know what going on backstage.

NS: Mick claims that the best food comes from the South, which maybe isn’t true, but I do not doubt that the soul food he ate on the road was ways better than the British food back home. Wyman probably disagrees.

I may have came off as too harsh in the previous response. Certainly I do not mean to imply that historical footage should be destroyed if it captures acts I find disagreeable. Zero stars may be a bit much, but as I said in the previous response, this film is almost impossible to review. It sometimes views as the rough cut of footage that was never edited or shaped into a discernible narrative. I will look into finding a better version of the film’s sound (a search on YouTube yielded the same sound quality level).

I did not get to your question in the first entry about “Cocksucker Blues” the song. One of the more lucid moments of the film is at the beginning, where Marshall Chess, son of legendary Chess Records owner Leonard Chess, talks up a dirty song project that never came to fruition, which is where “Cocksucker Blues” came from. One can only imagine what that compilation might have been like, but one song was apparently Dr. John’s “I Believe I’ll Eat Some Pussy Tonight.” Anyway, I like the song. There is a lot of empty space in this spare version--perhaps not typical of the Stones at this period, but the crudeness of the lyrics adds to the melody in an odd way. It’s a song about loneliness, perhaps not surprisingly.

I thought a lot about the likelihood of a concert doc like this coming out today. Certainly it seems as if any modern artist who had the popularity to put out a concert film is likely concerned with his/her/their public image to the degree that these depictions could never be shown on camera. Justin Bieber’s recent flick is a good example. The rumors are that his public behavior is depraved and unsettling; the film features Bieber basically trying to explain away his actions.

If there is a modern antecedent to this today, it seems less any modern documentary style and more the sex tapes and naked pics of celebrities that get leaked and proliferate around the Internet. American culture is luridly fascinated with the excesses of rock star behavior, which is often coupled with a Puritan tendency to judge and castigate that behavior. I think that both approaches are extreme, and that an artist’s worth ultimately should be judged by the quality of the art. Which is not to say that bad behavior does not matter--it just does not figure into my overall appreciation of the art itself.

Maybe with the proliferation of personal cameras, such behavior would be easier to capture and portray. But today’s major artists have to be more careful now than the Eagles, Stones, and Zeppelin of the past. Rock stars don’t talk up their groupies the way they used to, and those who do (Kings of Leon come to mind) seem crass and old-fashioned, and the backlash is often severe. Filming groupies naked and in their moments of weakness would be considered a sexist and unconscionable act by today’s standards, unless there were a damn good reason for doing so. A documentarian would have to be very careful about portraying this behavior without making it look good.

Honestly, to Frank’s credit, he doesn’t make it look good. The listless, bored look on Mick’s face tells us everything we need to know. Here the Stones were, in perhaps their greatest iteration, on their greatest tour in support of their greatest album. There is a special purity to their live show here. And yet the joy completely leaves the band as soon as they get off stage. The world’s greatest rock n roll band was becoming a brand, and Cocksucker Blues, to its credit, didn’t come close to fitting within it.

Addendum: Hate to be the classic rock pedant again, but “Thank Christ for the Bomb” is a great song by the Groundhogs.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Stones on Film Week Six: Stones in Exile (2011)

Directed by: Stephen Kijak
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray
You are reading Stones on Film, a 13-part dialogue covering notable Rolling Stones documentary and concert films through a critical lens. Today is week six. Archive here.
NS: We will be cheating a bit chronologically, as we are now into the era of the early ‘70s Stones, but are reviewing a documentary from 2011. Since the era explored in this film immediately follows Gimme Shelter, it made sense to feature this film next.

Stones in Exile’s making and subsequent release is an odd story. The documentary is essentially one of those “Classic Album” VH1 specials, except spread over the course of an hour. The documentaries usually involve in-depth interviews with primary musicians and songwriters which are interspersed with older concert and studio footage. Each song on the album is usually discussed at some length, and often the album’s producer or engineer will be on-camera to play original or alternate takes from the master recordings. I like these documentaries a lot because they focus more on the craft of songwriting, playing music, and recording, as opposed to “Behind the Music”-level documentaries that focus on gossip and drug addiction and other sexy, irrelevant factors.

One other common aspect of these documentaries, unfortunately, is the presence of celebrity fans. Stones in Exile has this, but to its credit, filmmaker Stephen Kijak consigns generally worthless commentary from Benicio Del Toro, Sheryl Crow, Jack White and others to the immediate beginning and end of the film. The rest of it focuses almost exclusively on the five official Stones, their regular session players at the time (Bobby Keys, Nicky Hopkins, and Jim Price) and the girlfriends, associates, and children who stayed in Keith Richards’ lavish Nellcote mansion during the album’s recording.

I was surprised by how much I liked Stones in Exile, which shrieks “vanity project” from beginning to end. The film seemed to have been made almost as an excuse for the Stones to get something into the Cannes Festival in 2010. However, Mick Jagger’s choice of filmmaker, Stephen Kijak, somehow made something watchable and sometimes even educational. Kijak, a feature filmmaker, documentarian, and Cassavetes acolyte, had previously made the docs Cinemania (about obsessive, lonely film addicts) and Scott Walker: 20th Century Man. He covers the major beats of any Exile retrospective, but gets in a lot of good, new commentary. I’ve read a lot about the Stones, Nellcote, and Exile, but even then this film told me something new about the album, whose story has already been excessively documented.  

Even with that, there is something weird about watching this film, a feeling as if history is being revised before your eyes. Those only familiar with Exile’s latter-day canonicity may not realize that this was not always a beloved and respected album. What’s more, the album’s greatest detractor in the past 30 years was probably Mick Jagger. He was legendarily unhappy with the final mix of the record, especially his vocals. There are also rumors that he never liked it because of what he perceived as Keith’s larger stamp on the project. For years, he had always expressed bewilderment at the album’s fans, pointing out it didn’t have anything close to a “Brown Sugar” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”-level hit.

Here we find Mick Jagger along with Charlie Watts at the beginning of this documentary, telling the camera, “When I started talking about making this film, I said we’re never gonna do this, we’re never gonna go to where we recorded it.” Yet there they are. Kijak films septuagenarians Jagger and Watts walking around an empty room in black and white, the Olympic Studios location where they mixed and overdubbed Exile. The banter between the two elder men is charming, though it does remind me of Tony Soprano’s remark that “‘remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.”

You could say it is mercenary and even typical for Jagger to have a big anniversary for an album he never liked because of the critical regard it later accumulated. Honestly, however, I found that Jagger had come to a surprisingly reasonable viewpoint regarding the album’s success. At the beginning of the film, he says: “When you come back to something you did 40 years ago, it doesn’t really matter--you’ve gotta look back at the big picture, you got really good things out of it.” This is a surprisingly fresh perspective from Jagger.

The end of the film finally acknowledges that Jagger was not originally a fan of the record. “I mean, it’s a different kind of a record. It’s a very sprawling, gutsy piece of work. The criticism of Exile was that it didn’t have a direction. But there’s also something very laudable about it, that it exhibits all these styles, and even multiple styles in one song. Does it have tons of, like, hit singles in it? No, it isn’t that kind of record.” His observations are laudable and open-minded, not typically what I would expect from Jagger these days. Has he come to consider it the masterpiece that I and so many others describe? No, but he understands where the love comes from. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind about a record.  

The rest of the film systematically describes the Stones’ tax troubles, their final English tour, their move to France, and the drug and sex-fueled recording adventures of the next year. The film consists of a lot of familiar footage from films we have already discussed, but there were a few surprises. I was especially intrigued by footage of their British farewell tour in 1970, which Jagger describes as “rather sort of sad.” The film discusses with some detail the difficult process of making the move to France (Charlie and Bill especially hate it) and new characters in the Stones extended family like photographer Dominique Tarlé. The famous photographs taken by Tarlé, who is interviewed extensively here, showed the Stones at the peak of their physical attractiveness, right at the moment in time where heavy heroin use was beginning but had not yet taken its toll on Keith, Anita, and others.

The film gets two things very right, with caveats in each case. One is when Tarlé says “The Rolling Stones at the time, it is not a five-piece band anymore. It is an eight-piece band.” Exile, more than any other Stones album, is the work not just of a core band but of a series of session musicians and engineers (Andy Johns and Jimmy Miller in particular) without which the record’s sound would be completely different. Thank goodness that Kijak recognizes the important contributions of non-members Bobby Keys, Jim Price, and Nicky Hopkins. Keys is a particularly memorable interviewee, though we only see what he looks like in old footage--just as well, as his Texan narration makes him sound just shy of a King of the Hill character (he says “that’s when you’re shittin’ in tall cotton” at one point).

However, the film leaves out the detail that even the original five-piece at the time was transitive. Wyman’s bass parts in particular were often played by Richards or Bill Plummer. Watts was unable to nail some of the drum parts, and Jimmy Miller was called up to play in his stead. Of the original Stones, only Jagger appears on every track on the album (including backing vocals on “Happy”).

The other thing the film gets right is when it shows the human costs of the Stones’ sybaritic lifestyle. It is not a long scene, but the interview with Jake Weber illustrates the callousness toward bystanders that is a byproduct of the rock ‘n roll life. Weber is an actor now, who was eight years old when his father sold drugs to the Stones in Nellcote. Allegedly, his father tasked him with muling cocaine for Mick and Bianca’s wedding. “If you’re living a decadent life, there’s darkness there,” Weber says, talking about his days as an 8-year old when his function was to roll joints for his father’s famous friends.

For an instant, the romantic spell over Nellcote is lifted. Unfortunately, the band never gets to offer their perspective on how they may have destroyed other people’s lives, though they do identify Nellcote as the start of Keith’s heroin addiction. At this point, though, the man has talked so much about his struggles with heroin that he should get a PhD in the subject.  

There’s so much to talk about about this documentary and this record, which I have probably listened to more than any other ever. But I have one final, overarching question, my friend: how disgusted were you by those British foods Bill Wyman imported to the south of France?

AM: Those foods seemed truly revolting. Pity Bill (and Charlie, who apparently hated moving*), too homesick for the simple life to enjoy the French Riviera. There’s some truly classic Wyman in this film, from his grousing about tax rates to a scene where he seems genuinely unsure if the band is actually leaving England, and double checks with a reporter.

I, too, was surprised to find myself enjoying the film. It’s lightweight, sure, and a total vanity project. But, as you say, it’s an opportunity to get into the Exile story beyond the boring old “they left for tax reasons.” There’s lots of great pictures and footage, and even, yes, some insight from the principals.

But yes, back to those taxes. Rich people complaining about taxes is never a good look, but it’s a critical part of the story here. Kijak gives it about the right amount of play, including Watts’ observation that fleeing England to dodge taxes was “really not very cool.”

I’ve always wondered how broke the band actually was. Allen Klein, their old manager, screwed them over. No doubt about that. But the Rolling Stones decamped to France in a private fucking jet. Mick Taylor, whose alarmingly gruff current-day voice doesn’t match the baby-faced kid he was in 1972, seemed surprised that they took a jet. But then he was the junior Stone.

You get a nice sense of life in France from the doc. The little details fill in the broad strokes that most Stones fans are familiar with. I liked seeing Keef out with his son in the mornings, and knowing that’s when he cared for him. I found it interesting that Watts, who didn’t speak French and had to drive several hours to get to Nellcote, felt very isolated. And I loved the extravagant beards that Ringo and Paul sported at Mick and Bianca’s wedding. (Two asides here: what did the Stones have against beards? And the specter of the Beatles still hung over this band, even in 1972.)

It gets a bit talking head-y at times, and Kijak uses still photos, recreates some scenes and pulls footage from other docs. I’d love to see the Nellcote era get the Gimme Shelter treatment, but the footage just isn’t there. Thank god photographer Dominique Tarlé was--though he consciously avoided the places where the unflattering stuff was going down.

And the film kind of does the same. It paints a generally happy, debauched picture of Nellcote, and then acknowledges about three-quarters of the way in that it got pretty dark too. The place was “cursed,” as Anita Pallenberg puts it. It’s astounding that we hear nothing about Gram Parsons, then Keith’s principal drug buddy. Parsons got himself kicked out of Nellcote by Keef, who was trying to avoid further drug charges as a result of rampant and sanctioned drug use at his home. Keef would struggle with addiction for years afterward; Parsons died of an overdose in 1973.

Transitioning here, did you find yourself wishing for those killer anecdotes about individual songs? Or unreleased stuff? There’s not a ton of that in the film for the hardcore fans. Instead, we have to settle for footage of Keith and Bobby Keyes (the movie’s MVP, by a mile) tossing a TV out the window, in all its childish glory. I’ll take it.

The film in general, isn’t particularly concerned with the music. For me, the most startling revelation was that Jagger doesn’t hate Exile. Otherwise, we didn’t get to hear too much critic-y stuff. I found myself wondering about the context of the record, musically. What were the Stones listening to in ‘72? Did they feel a sense of competition with newer, harder bands? (What did Jagger and Richards think of Plant and Page, anyway?) Or were they too stoned to give a shit?

I’ve always considered Exile a cousin to Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin On. They’re druggy, dark, end-of-the-60’s records, recorded in mansions away from either group’s home turf. And they both have beautifully murky production. That haze doesn’t take away from Exile’s songs, or obscure them--it’s part of the music, the heat and human drama of Nellcote making its way onto the record.

And there’s a sort of spiritual kinship, production-wise, with the scratchy old blues records from which the Stones plundered. Of course, they rarely did it this well, and never again at this insane level.

Stones In Exile doesn’t hold the key to the record. While it’s fun, do you feel like you can appreciate Exile any differently now after watching the movie?

Finally, let me close by thanking you for loaning me your CD copy of Exile ten years ago. That was a long time ago, but these songs have stayed with me.

NS: You are very welcome. Glad you mentioned Parsons, whom I had completely forgotten about. His fingerprints are all over the record, particularly the second side. The Stones had done plenty of country tunes in the past, of course, but new songs like “Torn and Frayed” and “Sweet Virginia” were rougher and more authentic takes on classic country and blues. Those songs were not humorous takes on past country standards (“Dead Flowers”) or crushing ballads (“No Expectations”). These rough, rugged, but ultimately beautiful tunes are among the primary early artifacts of what would come to be called (rather confusingly) “alt-country.”

I don’t feel any different about Exile than I did prior to this film. Partly because I love it so much, and my appreciation is basically set in stone. As I said before, I’ve listened to the album hundreds of times, probably more than any other (Fun House and Doolittle come closest). I can recall nearly any moment of its 67:07 length from memory.

The sound of the album continues to astound me. I remember the first time I bought Exile in Best Buy and listened to it in the parking lot. The first song, “Rocks Off,” came on, and in the first three seconds I thought I heard the CD skipping, and assumed it was defective. I returned it, but my replacement copy had the same problem. Turns out that skip at the beginning of “Rocks Off” was part of the original recording, which now pleases me a great deal. Hard to think that Jagger would ever abide by such mistakes, then or today. I wish the film had taken time to talk about those opening three seconds.

I was also intrigued by your comparison between Exile and There’s a Riot Goin’ On. It is curious how both albums are remembered as the best of the artists’ respective careers, and yet they represent unique moments where the album becomes more important than any single or song on the album (is this the original AOR?). Exile of course had two singles (“Tumbling Dice” b/w “Sweet Black Angel” and “Happy” b/w “All Down the Line”), but none of them charted as high as mega hits “Brown Sugar,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” etc. I think the same is true of Riot, which is now well known as Sly’s greatest project, despite the lack of hits on the level of “Everday People” or “Dance to the Music” (you will have to tell me--was “Family Affair” a huge hit?).

The one big difference I would say is that Exile is the work of many different producers and musicians who share authorship of the album. Whereas Riot was a far more personal project which found Sly Stone playing all instruments and replacing collaborators with drum machines. Still, there is a lot to compare between both albums’ lo-fi, drugged-out vibe.

Stones in Exile does an ok job of trying to convey the rough qualities of the album, but the doc itself is slick and efficient, not exactly the feel of Exile. As I said earlier, the celebrity interviews do not help, and are strikingly unilluminating (Jack White, I never want to see you in a documentary again). The earlier footage we mostly see in glimpses, which can be frustrating sometime. It is fun to imagine what filmmakers like the Maysles or Robert Frank might have done with a documentary crew at Nellcote. But the fact that never happened contributes to some of the album’s mystery--because only still photographs and glimpses of Keef’s basement and the time spent there exist, everyone’s listening experience with Exile evokes something slightly different, because the album isn’t anchored or associated with moving images the way the Hyde Park or Altamont concerts were.

You mentioned a lot of things that the film, for all its strengths, are still missing. Tensions between band members, particularly Jagger/Richards and Taylor, mostly go unaddressed. Taylor had to fight to get a songwriting credit for “Ventilator Blues,” a song that revolves completely around his slide guitar. Unlike Wyman, who was willing to give up the credit for the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” riff (and up to this point had only one solo songwriting credit, “In Another Land”), Taylor was not happy about Jagger and Richards’ iron grip on song credits. This would of course later lead to the departure of Taylor in the mid-70s and the introduction of Ron Wood, which signified the end of the Stones’ greatest era.

I forgot to mention that another reason Jagger supposedly disliked the album was that he was not happy with the vocal mix. He doesn’t mention that in the film. Why do you think Mick might have changed his mind? Was it the constant mentions in various “best albums” lists and paeans to the album’s greatness from Rolling Stone? Or has Jagger come to genuinely appreciate the album more with age? Both answers are simultaneously possible, I suppose. I wish the film had discussed more about what Mick did and didn’t like about the album in specific detail.

You ask what the Stones have against beards? Well, here’s Mick--maybe Keef couldn’t grow facial hair? And here’s some typically backhanded comments from Keith Richards on Led Zeppelin.

Finally, if you have not read it already, I highly recommend Bill Janovitz’s excellent 33⅓ take on Exile, which delves far more into musical particulars than this doc.

AM: Never read the Janovitz book, which I’ve been meaning to for ages. You could do a sequel to this project by reading Stones books, which display a similar split between genuinely interesting chronicles and self-serving vanity projects. Those dualities often coexist in the same books.

I sense a bit of opportunism in Jagger’s belated embrace of Exile On Main Street. The film came out just around the time that a “super deluxe” edition of Exile was re-released. That the super deluxe edition is a disappointment (tons of overdubs on the songs, you can find boots that are better) wouldn’t dissuade a businessman of Jagger’s caliber--he a had a product to push. And it worked, the reissue sold pretty well. Before I watched this movie, I’d assumed that it was a bonus from that reissue.

Another sidebar here, but you have to wonder if the Stones will ever release another studio album (I think 2011’s Some Girls reissue and that greatest hits were their last releases of any sort). It’s been nine years since A Bigger Bang, and there doesn’t seem to be any movement towards a new one. Not that A Bigger Bang was good (feel free to disagree with me, random RS hack), but we were both big fans of the 2012 track “Doom & Gloom.”

The “new” record may be why the doc brought in a bunch of unaffiliated, unknowledgable “names” to lather praise on Exile. Seems like something Jagger would back. Purely speculation here, but can you think of any other reason to solicit the opinion of, Caleb Followill or Benecio Del Toro? The album predates most of their births. If Bobby Keyes was the film’s MVP (he aptly describes the atmosphere at the chateau as “about as unrehearsed as a hiccup”), then surely Don Was’ opening quote on the sixties (“you either had to blow up the system or flee from it”) was the film’s nadir. Kijak was wise, as you note, to relegate these moments to beginning and end of the film.

But then again, maybe Mick has warmed to Exile. Twenty years ago, he said “It’s got a raw quality, but I don’t think all around it’s as good.” But he’s getting on, perhaps he’s nostalgic, or reflective. But it’s hard to imagine him totally embracing an album--peerless as this one is--that totally encapsulates the Keith way of doing things.

Thanks for touching on the country side of Exile. I’m a sucker for everything countryish that they did, as I’ve made clear. Even among the fine company of Stones country, the second side of Exile is very special. Jagger drops the snideness and condescension that often mark those songs, and just croaks along to the beautiful music. Bury me to “Sweet Virginia,” please.

The film plays lip service to country--someone calls it something like “the other half of rock and roll”--but here, as elsewhere, doesn’t dive in too deep. Why, I wonder, did living in France inspire the Stones to pen a greater volume of country songs than ever before? Surely Gram Parsons had something to do with that, even though he’d yet to release anything as a solo artist.

You raise some interesting differences between this album and There’s A Riot Goin On, starting with Sly’s one-man approach (though Sly gets crucial assists from Family Stone bassist Larry Graham). “Family Affair” is another one--that was a huge hit, a pop #1. But there’s still a kinship between Riot and Exile, and I think their murky production (along with Murmur, a decade later) radiated an authenticity that pointed towards lo-fi records 15 and 20 years later. Interesting to note that Liz Phair is thanked in the credits, but never appears in the film.

You raise the interesting point that Exile was among the first wave of AOR. Something in the air inspired the Stones to go long on this one. It was also among the first rock albums to undergo critical reevaluation. Lester Bangs called the album “maddeningly inconsistent and strangely depressing” upon its release, but later came to embrace the record. It can be a confusing if you come to it from Sticky Fingers or the Stones radio hits. But it makes a lot of sense in terms of the band’s history and personalities--I think the film represents that well. And I think you could love the think on the first spin, context or no.

At this point, most people who care love Exile. Maybe that makes it less dangerous, or unique. But no amount of praise, or enjoyable-enough documentaries, can blunt the impact of these songs. If, someday, the Stones are remembered for one record, Exile would be a damn good one. Stones In Exile would be a nice supplement, but the songs are all you need.