Monday, May 26, 2014

Stones on Film Week Three: The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1996)

Directed by: Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Available on DVD and for rent

AM: Imagine: you throw a party to celebrate yourself, record it, and then hide that recording for thirty years because you were upstaged by a guest.

That’s essentially what the Rolling Stones did with their Rock And Roll Circus, which features performances by Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, and a supergroup fronted by John Lennon. But it’s The Who, tearing through “A Quick One While He’s Away,” who steal the Stones’ thunder.

All concert films are exercises in vanity, but this one is up there. The Stones suppressed it for nearly three decades, by which time The Who were firmly below them in the Classic Rock Power Rankings. But wait--why were the Stones throwing a circus in late 1968 at all?

It was the period between Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed, and came during a long hiatus in the band’s touring schedule. It’d been 20 months since the Stones last played a show, then the longest gap in the band’s history. The Circus was a way to reach fans without putting out a record or hitting the road.

So gather your rock friends to play together and see what happens--that’s the M.O. And set it in a circus. That is actually a TV soundstage. Then dress the audience in weird, multicolored robes that make them look like cult members.

As you can probably tell, I’m puzzled by the circus theme. It seems much more in tune with the band’s public image in 1967, when they released psychedelic gem Their Satantic Majesties Request (wish Godard had been in the studio for “Citadel”). On that album, Jagger adopts the stagey presence of a circus ringleader, and to quite nice effect. But by 1968, after “Jumping Jack Flash” and Beggar’s Banquet, the Stones had returned to their roots--ripping off American genres, mostly blues and country. Rock as a whole had decisively turned away from the excesses of psychedelia. And yet here we are in a circus tent, and it’s almost 1969.

There’s not a lot of circus acts in this particular tent, although the fire-eater ranks among the movie’s best performances.

The first two acts offer a treatise in how and how not to play music on TV. Jethro Tull kick things off, not especially well, miming along to a prerecorded “Song For Jeffrey.” The band--here featuring a pre-Black Sabbath Tony Iommi--look like vagrants, none more so than frontman Ian Anderson. Did you find his mannerisms as disturbing as I did? He hams it up, and there’s tons of frantically-edited close-ups of various parts of his body.

The Who take the stage next, looking insanely young. They immediately smash their way into “A Quick One While He’s Away,” 1966’s shapeshifting epic. Townshend sinks his teeth into the riff, Daltrey wails powerfully, and Keith Moon slams out drum fills for the ages (Moon’s manic style offers an interesting counterpoint to Watt’s straightlaced, straightfaced drumming).

The band bring an insane level of energy to the song. It works because the performance is top-notch, but also because of the physicality of their playing. Think about it: The Stones have a attention-grabbing frontman and four dudes who mostly stare off into space. Not The Who. Their white-hot performance features windmilling and jump kicks by the guitarist, mic tricks from the frontman, and the drummer throwing his cymbal to the ground.

This might be a stretch, but if this was the 1960 presidential debate, the Who are the energetic JFK, where the Stones are Nixon--unprepared and toughing it out (they reportedly took the stage around 5 AM, several hours after The Who played).

And that song! A beautifully written, constantly changing piece of music, besting the studio version by far. My only criticism is of Daltrey’s shirt.

Taj Mahal takes the stage after The Who, in an amazing cowboy get up. He and his band tear through “(Ain’t That) A Lot of Love,” and it’s maybe the second best performance here. That bassline is nasty, a gritty and Stax-worthy rock for Taj to rest his cowboy hat on. It’s a great slice of hippie blues--”we’ve got to bring it up together baby,” Taj implores.

Marianne Faithful follows Mahal, and we first see her from above. She’s all by herself, in a lavish purple dress. Singing along to a prerecorded “Something Better,” a psych-y folk number. She just sits there (lots of closeups of her face), so it’s a testament to her performance that it’s actually quite watchable. As Faithful sings her sad song, her languid eyes stare out into the space. I really haven’t found something better, her eyes suggest.

The last non-Stones act is The Dirty Mac, a supergroup fronted by John Lennon, who calls himself Winston Legthigh for reasons unknown (the humor in this movie is bizarre). He and Jagger intro the group, which features Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell, Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. There’s a wonderfully awkward moment at the end of the exchange, where Lennon hands Mick his dirty dishes, and Mick keeps saying “‘Yer Blues’ John, ‘Yer Blues’ John.”

Which he and the Mac then play. For all the pedigree in the group, they sound like they just formed. It’s not bad, but the song doesn’t improve on the version you know from The White Album. A pre-rant Clapton takes a longish solo that doesn’t add much to the tune--I found myself wanting to hear a gnarled Lennon solo, or perhaps how George Harrison might navigate the scuzzy waters.

The Mac then back Yoko Ono as she shouts out a song called “Whole Lotta Yoko.” You will not be surprised to learn that it’s the movie’s most experimental moment, by far. Yoko would have freaked out the viewing public, if the movie had been released. What was Keith thinking as he played along to Ono’s primal screams, I wonder?

And then, halfway, through the film, Lennon introduces the Rolling Stones, who were not yet calling themselves the greatest rock and roll band in the world.

I’ve already gone on too long (if this post was a Rock and Roll Circus track, it would be “Whole Lotta Yoko”), so I’ll wrap up there. What did you think of the Stones? Am I right to say that Taj Mahal and The Who gave the best performances in the film? And was there any reason to set this thing in a circus?

NS: The Rock and Roll Circus was recorded on December 11, 1968, but didn’t arrive on home video until 1996. I know because my father bought the VHS from Rhino as soon as it was released. Like many Stones fans, he had only heard legends of the concert, including the barn-busting early Who performance “A Quick One” (first shown in the 1978 documentary The Kids Are Alright) and the one and only appearance of the Dirty Mac (marking the first time John Lennon played on television without the Beatles, a significant moment that foreshadows their breakup--it’s possible that the film is of more historical import to Beatles fans than Stones fans). I was 10 years old at the time, and still have vague memories of watching it.

The Stones may have been upstaged by the Who, but the image I remember most keenly from childhood is Mick Jagger removing his shirt during “Sympathy For the Devil” (that tune again) and revealing demonic tattoos, crouched over the stage, chanting and muttering. I remember it even moreso than the sword swallower and his assistant “lovely Luna,” (to quote cigar-chomping Keith), a very impressive act. Jagger seemed genuinely threatening in this performance, and he made the song scary and memorable. The rest of the band, well...they followed his cue and stayed in the back. It’s as you said: they are “four dudes mostly staring off into space.” But Jagger’s performance, at least, is among his best.

It’s worth placing this event in a bit of context. The performances began at 2 p.m., with Jagger and co. acting as ringleaders throughout. Filming took much longer than originally planned, to the point where the Stones finally took the stage at 5 a.m. the next day. My impression is that the bleary-eyed audience dressed in robes was not allowed to leave the soundstage, which explains how tired and miserable they seemed during the Stones’ set. Conversely, that somehow enhances the cult-like atmosphere, perhaps part of the reason why “Sympathy for the Devil” seemed so scary to a 10-year old.

I would be happy to elaborate on the Stones song in the film since you did a great job of describing the other acts (we will vehemently disagree later about Jethro Tull). John Lennon introduces the group with some brief pantomime. Cut to: the opening riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” played low and almost unexpectedly, causing dazed fans in the audience to stand up and clap their hands. They are witnessing the original five, plus pianist Nicky Hopkins and percussionist Rocky Dijon.

The run through “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” does seem to lack energy, at least at first. Keith bounces and nods his head like he usually does (not a lot of moves, that guy), while Jagger gives the camera filthy looks. But the audience eventually starts getting into, and Jagger responds with a little energetic strut. The energy builds. There are other brief glimpses of musicians in the audience, dancing excitedly.

The next song is “Parachute Woman,” from Beggar’s Banquet. The groove is laid back, but it settles in eventually, just as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” did. Keith’s guitar solo is a pretty much a miss, but Mick redeems him with his harp solo. A more high-energy number here might have been a better choice, had they known they would be on at 5 a.m.--imagine if they had done “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadows” instead!

Up next is “No Expectations,” from the same album. The main point of interest here is Brian’s slide guitar, his last notable musical moment on film (and the only time his guitar is audible throughout). If you listen carefully, Nicky Hopkins’ piano is really lovely too. After that is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” After two low-energy songs, it looks like the audience is starting to nod off again. Jagger responds with free-flowing manic energy. He scats, runs on and offstage, thrusts his pelvis at female audience members. It’s not the greatest performance of the song overall (Keith and Charlie in particular are disappointments), but at least it shows the tune never needed ornate production or gospel choirs to drive home its bittersweet message.

Finally, “Sympathy for the Devil” begins. Mick imitates the single’s opening yelp, as Charlie taps out the song’s primordial beat, helped on percussion by Dijon and Brian Jones on maracas (he at least looks like he’s having fun). I think this is a great performance, second only to “A Quick One,” and the one time that both Mick and the band both seem to be cracking at the same time. The song builds and so do Mick’s animated movements, leading to the aforementioned moment where he kneels shirtless, as if in prayer, possessed by an unholy spirit. The song ends with Mick putting a scarf over his head.

“Sympathy” is the film’s main climax, but there is a denouement--Mick and Keith, both barely conscious, appear again clad in robes with the other bands and audience members, and Keith sings the first chorus of “Salt of the Earth.” In her review of the film, the New York Times’ Janet Maslin took issue with “the smugness and condescension that accompany this song about little people living in the real world.” Do you think that’s a fair characterization of “Salt of the Earth”?

Though not among the Stones’ best, I can still appreciate the song’s rustic and simple approach, even if the Stones’ world was as removed from “the hard-working people” as was possible (it wasn’t like they were trying to claim otherwise). But to be honest, it’s not much of a climax. The song is an overdub, and everyone is beyond tired. The film ends with Pete Townshend and Keith Moon and some other musicians weakly attempting a squaredance.

I’d love to answer some of your other questions and talk about the opening performances, but like you, I’ve already written too much. We’ll get to that (and Tull) next time. In the meantime, I just realized we’ve written thousands of words about the film without once mentioning the director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg. Lindsay-Hogg (incidentally the biological son of Orson Welles) is best-known for pioneering the music video format with the early promotional films of the Stones and the Beatles. Is his presence here even worth remarking upon, or is he just another Stones hagiographer whose vision is totally sublimated to the needs of Jagger and Richards? What say you?

AM: Good question. The extravagantly-named Lindsay-Hogg didn’t leave too many fingerprints on Rock and Roll Circus. Leafing through my notes (unlike Keith, I have a terrible memory), I see that I mostly approve of his direction when I liked the performance, and seemed to take issue with it when I didn’t (as with Jethro Tull, which I reiterate did not move me at all).

During the Stones’ set Lindsay-Hogg’s focus is squarely on Jagger. Poor Nicky Hopkins is off in a submerged corner, barely even visible (and too low in the mix as well). The camerawork in Sympathy for the Devil provides a contrast to what Lindsay-Hogg does here. Both directors filmed music being played in indoor circular spaces. But Godard showed up with a single camera, and Lindsay-Hogg’s got an army of them. And instead of the aimless drift of Godard’s camera, in Rock and Roll Circus we’re treated to copious images of our front men and women, often in extreme close-up.

That leads to some good moments, like the borderline-iconic one where Mick tears of his shirt to bear those devils. But then, during “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” we have to watch Mick singing “you cannot always get the man that you want” directly to a group of women in the audience, which comes off as downright mean.

The visual imagination in Circus comes from its set and non-musical performers, along with the Who’s kinetic “Quick One.” Which isn’t Lindsay-Hogg’s fault, really--who would watch the Stones play for 30 minutes if you had to stare at the leaden faces of Watts and Wyman? The band didn’t seem to mind his direction, and continued to work with him through Tattoo You.

As for the Stones’ performance, we’re basically in agreement. A lot of the songs start off sluggishly, but pick up (weren’t these guys used to being awake at 5 AM?). I don’t hear a definitive version of anything in the film. “Sympathy” sounds good, but no better than it does towards the end of Godard’s film.

As for “Salt of the Earth,” I’ve always liked it, and it’s a fitting closer to Beggar’s Banquet. I don’t think Maslin’s wrong, but where she hears condescension I notice estrangement. I think you hit the nail on the head--the Stones were singing about a world they and their circus of starfuckers were light years away from (“they don’t look real to me/in fact they look so strange”).

“Salt of the Earth” would make a great soundtrack for a beer commercial, but it’s less apt for a movie-ending singalong. It’s telling that the Stones have only played it a handful of times since.

We won’t see much of Brian Jones after this, so a few words about him. By this point, he was so marginal to the Stones that it’s depressing to watch him. Jones had lost his band. He’s barely audible for most of the film, as you mention, and he’s wearing a weird purple jacket with green-yellow pants. He looks like a creepy, elfin version of the Minnesota Vikings mascot.

And yet, for the length of one song he plays some elegiac slide guitar. For three minutes, you can hear Jones playing loud and clear. His slide drifts up from a lonely place, playing one of the most gorgeous songs in his band’s catalog. It’s hard not to hear “No Expectations” as an elegy for Brian Jones.

Along with “Sympathy,” that’s the highlight of the Stones’ set. For four other songs, Jagger’s willpower drives the band. But on “Expectations” the group’s founder discovers his spark one final time, as he plays a song about moving on.

Let me throw it back to you, along with a hypothetical. In an alternate universe where a Tony Iommi-featuring Jethro Tull and The Dirty Mac both recorded albums in 1969, which would be better? Would either hold a candle to Let It Bleed?

NS: That’s a tricky question with an easy answer. Jethro Tull did release an album in 1969, Stand Up, which has some slow, swampy electric blues rock that Iommi would further innovate in Sabbath. Whether Iommi’s signature detuned heaviness would have improved the album overall, it’s hard to say. (Iommi’s tenure in Tull was apparently so short because he couldn’t stand his bandmates--surprising when you consider his 50-year association with Ozzy Osbourne.) As for the Dirty Mac album, I imagine something like Plastic Ono Band crossed with the Blind Faith album, and who knows? That might have sounded all right. However, neither of them would have topped Let It Bleed. Very little does.

While I can’t really defend Jethro Tull’s act on musical grounds--as a dubbed performance, it isn’t even Iommi’s guitar you hear--I do have to stick up for poor Ian Anderson, who gets considerable grief from some rock fans (observe Dean Christgau’s series of oddly personal putdowns here). Hopping on one leg and playing the flute, he’s a bewildering frontman, and as defiantly unsexy a voice in rock as there ever was. I think his raving jester act has value and uniqueness, especially back in the late 60s, and many of the best Jethro Tull tunes still hold up (my favorite is “Teacher”).

The song they play, “A Song for Jeffrey,” is simple blues rock, but has a shimmering 12-string slide guitar tone that reminds me of Zeppelin’s take on “Traveling Riverside Blues.” Most people in retrospect probably focus on Iommi’s presence in the video, but I enjoy the moves of harmonica-playing bassist Glenn Cornick, a major part of early Tull. Still, the performance is hampered by the fact it is a recording. There’s no getting around that.

The same could be said about Marianne Faithfull’s performance, which I find the most skippable of the film. Faithfull was and is a great musical artist, but her music back when she was known for her association with Mick (“As Tears Go By,” other weepy covers) is not nearly as strong as the bold 70s post-relationship solo albums. Whereas other musicians in the film rely on instruments and movement, Faithfull is stationary, sitting and facing the camera in a Disney dress. Lindsay-Hogg’s camera swoops in Hollywood-style, filming her face like an object of a Renoir painting. The song she plays is a serviceable ballad, but it is less memorable than any other tune in the film.

This leaves Taj Mahal and the Who, who you correctly say give the best performances. I love the bass line for “(Ain’t That) A Lot of Love,” which has a very classic Motown quality. A solid, unchanging bass line, but boy does it build. And the Who, of course, are explosive. The directness of the power trio+vocalist setup, the intensity of their playing, the visceral touches they put into their performances (Pete’s windmilling, Keith’s tom-based supercharged patter, Rog’s microphone swinging) are clearly calculated to excite the audience, but the passion of the performance is real.

And let’s give it up for the late John Entwistle, legendary stoic and acid wit, who booms on bass and gives a great vocal performance as the pervy “Ivor the engine driver.”

Finally, I wanted to add to your thoughts on Brian Jones. You stated everything that needed to be said about “No Expectations” and how it reflected Jones’ role in the band. This is the last film in the Stones chronology where he is alive on camera. The relative absence of Jones in all the documentaries so far shows, to me, the lack of interest Mick and Keith had in their peer’s musical progressivism. Had Jones not drowned, or had he continued with the band, the Stones’ sound going into the earlier 1970s could have been remarkably different.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stones on Film Week Two: Sympathy for the Devil/1 + 1 (1968)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Available on DVD and for rent

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 two. Archive here.

NS: After opening credits and a primitive painted interstitial (“stonesrolling”), the film begins with Brian Jones and Mick Jagger on acoustic guitars, humming away at a chord progression that sounds familiar. It is “Sympathy for the Devil,” but in its larval stage. They are sitting in a large recording booth in front of a brightly-colored soundbooth, and there is a garish pink rug on the floor. Bill Wyman, revealed to be sitting behind the guitarists, wears a shirt with the same color of pink. Suddenly, Keith Richards cuts in from the left of the frame, muttering some instructions to the group. The music stops, and the camera pans right to Charlie Watts in the corner, bored and noodling at the drums.

This opening two minutes basically establish one of two distinct tonalities set by Jean-Luc Godard in Sympathy For the Devil (originally 1 + 1, but re-titled against Godard’s will). Half of the film showcases the five Stones banging out the song that will become “Sympathy for the Devil,” occasionally with session musicians and vaguely familiar faces (such as Nicky Hopkins on organ, last seen drinking and crooning Beatles tunes in Charlie is my Darling). The other half of the film is harder to describe, but it basically involves a lot of Black Panther iconography and radical sloganeering, as well as some comic book imagery and implied sexual violence. These scenes are linked to the Stones segments in that they involve Godard’s signature long takes, in which the camera begins with an image, then pans laterally until it rests upon another image, then returns in the opposite direction.

The tonal shifts between the two halves become apparent about eleven minutes into the film, when we break with the Stones and cut to a black man, sitting in a wheelbarrow in a junk yard. He is reading an excerpt from Blues People by Amiri Baraka. At first, it seems like Godard is making some sort of connection between the American black music the Stones appropriated and the rights struggles of African Americans in the 60s. This at least seems like a profound and salient point. But then that point sits there, and doesn’t really elaborate. It is one of many empty Marxist slogans aimed or shouted at the viewer, in increasingly inartful scenarios. Then it gets worse: another Black Panther in the junkyard reads Eldridge Cleaver’s ugly commentary on white women. While he reads this, caucasian females trussed in white rags are taken into empty cars and shot.

It soon becomes clear that Godard is using the Stones elements of the film as a vehicle for increasingly unsubtle and incomprehensible essays on Marxism. In the late 60s, the director was embarking on his “radical period,” films that were less films and more plotless, cynical anti-narratives. Any connection any of this has with the Stones sequences is lost about halfway through, and the other elements in the film (clearly the parts Godard favors) have a habit of annoyingly taking viewers out of the proceedings for no reason.

But what of the Stones themselves? If nothing else, Godard’s fingerprints are all over these scenes as well. He was reportedly angry with the studio producers’ decision to include the single version of “Sympathy of the Devil” at the end of the film, and threatened to disown the project. To him, the Stones were not particularly interesting. He does not seem intrigued at all by the recording process or the nature of pop songwriting or anything like that. He captures snippets of conversation with the Stones, but always seemingly at their least significant.

Do you see where Godard is coming from when he says airing “Sympathy for the Devil” at the end ruins the whole point of the movie? On one level, I see what he means. It would be a mistake to say this film captures the songwriting process at any depth: the film begins with the song already written, and does not include any moments such as when, for instance, the song changes from a slow-building organ anthem (like “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” or “Like a Rolling Stone”) to its famous samba rhythm. On the other hand, this seems to demonstrate Godard at his most insufferable, and for all his innovations this film stands as a perfect reason why my mind shuts off when his characters start talking politics.

And what did you think of Brian Jones? Curious how yet again he is barely heard in these brief snippets of performance. He seems, like Godard, increasingly unconcerned with what is going on around him. Perhaps he, or Godard, chose to film his this way on purpose? Already we are seeing a pattern.

AM: I should say off the bat that I’ve never been a Godard fan. Breathless I’ve warmed to and the primary colors and studied cool of a film like Contempt are hard to deny. But for a Godard skeptic, or even a Stones skeptic, Sympathy for the Devil is just about the worst place to start.

1 + 1 is a decent title for the film, but its halves don’t add up. You’re right that the studio scenes and political stagings aren’t effectively integrated. We see the Stones at various moments in the creation of one of their finest songs, one we’ll discuss again in this series. And we see what the director imagines to be scenes from the class struggle in 1968. The audio occasionally spills over from one half to the other, but Godard doesn’t seek to weave them together.

You ask if Sympathy for the Devil, if left to the director’s devices, would have turned out better? I’m inclined to say no. The project is rotten at its core. I don’t think that hearing the song in full particularly affected my viewing experience--that’s a decision that might agonize an auteur, but doesn’t particularly change the film. The Stones get closer and closer to that final version as the film draws on. Why not let us hear where they arrived? How does that blunt all those comic shop seig hiels? (Don’t ask.)

It’s the missed connections between the studio scenes and Marxist plays that’s really frustrating. There’s not a dialectic here, where the halves are feeding off one another or lending meaning to the film even when they’re off-screen.

“Sympathy for the Devil” is a political song, but if you were going to choose one Beggar’s Banquet jam to build your 1968 film around, surely you’d choose “Street Fighting Man.” There’s a song that evokes May in Paris, the Black Power salute and the DNC riots. “Sympathy” just makes me think about Bolsheviks.

And the structure leads us in two very different directions, which never reconcile. Godard sits us inside Olympic Studios, with its period-appropriate oranges, yellows, reds, browns and greens. It’s an odd setting for a political film. No one in the room talks politics--mostly, the musicians look weary--and they’re in a fucking recording studio. These are places that exist to screen out reality, its noises and distractions. They’re isolation chambers. Which makes Godard’s interjections all the more annoying.

Now, I did think that the studio scenes were pretty interesting. We open with the Stones working on a barely recognizable version of “Sympathy.” There are three acoustics, and Jagger sounds Dylan-y, like he would on “Jigsaw Puzzle.” The take recalls “Tangled Up In Blue” as much as it does “Sympathy for the Devil,” and it’s nice, but it lacks the charge of the final version.

When we next see the Stones, on a different day, we’re molested by a graphic voiceover. One that’s poorly recorded as well--you’d think that Godard could have booked a little studio time for his voice actors. Once that subsides, we get Godard’s wandering camera tracking the Stones, starting with the back of Jones’ head. Jones is barely audible in the mix. Mick, his pink trousers matching his lips exactly, chews out Charlie for playing “a bit dead.” Wyman is playing percussion, and Richard is on bass.

Eventually--the film tracks several days worth of takes on the song--Sympathy gets more infernal, with each congo, maraca, and bongo taking us one circle lower. The “woo woos”--so natural in the final song--turn out to be seven dudes standing around one microphone. They sound weirdly flat. But we see and hear the Stones getting closer and closer, figuring out just what it is they have.

One of the best moments in the studio comes towards the end, as a purple-clad Richard plays some lost classic. The riff is alternatively twisted and anthemic, with the fierce electric energy he’d ultimately bring to the solos in “Sympathy.” Charlie pounds away at a weird groove. And then, out of nowhere, the final version of “Sympathy for the Devil” drops in over the same take. OK, maybe that wasn’t the best place for the song.

But you’re right--Godard doesn’t seem particularly interested in anything inside the studio. Not the songwriting, not the band dynamics, not the mechanics of recording. He brings more imagination to the film’s political moments. But all the people talking in ideology...It’s meaningless garbage, isn’t it? (“Do you think drugs are a spiritual form of gambling?”). It’s offensive to the audience, and it’s terrible cinema.

There’s an interesting moment, when the black revolutionary in the junkyard reads aloud on race and music. It’s germane to the Stones, and to what we’re hearing back in the studio. Godard is doing something that’s meaningful to both halves of the film. Samba and lyrics about satan did not originate with white Englishmen, after all. But the scene takes some tasteless and sexist turns, drags on forever, and loses whatever spark Amiri Baraka’s thoughts briefly gave it. For a film about art and revolution, the sparks fly very rarely.

Before I toss it back to you, let me make a request. Play devil’s advocate--what about this film might someone love? Am I too bourgeois to get it?

And another topic I haven’t gotten to--the Stones’ transformation in the years between Charlie is My Darling and Sympathy for the Devil. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?

NS: As a big fan of of Godard, I would be happy to play temporary advocate. The film does have its adherents--among them, Lee Ranaldo. Not even Ranaldo is inclined to pay much attention to the Marxist gobbledygook that you 100% accurately describe as “meaningless garbage.” However, as I mentioned a bit previously, I think Godard’s approach to long takes is both lovely and original, and in another world it would be an ideal means of panning around Olympic Studios and catching the Stones in various moments of creativity. To his credit, I think Godard’s camera does pack in a lot of visual information about the Stones, when he bothers to show them. Perhaps he would have been better-suited to a concert film than something like this.

I like the comic book imagery as well, but as with the Baraka recitation, there’s more the suggestion of an idea (something about pop art imagery in comics and radical politics) than any actual idea. Godard’s other experimental works during this period, like Le Gai Savoir and Tout va Bien, did similar things, but at least those films had striking and thoughtful imagery and editing juxtapositions that played with and challenged the Marxist agitprop--they were “dialectical” in a way this film obviously strives but fails to be.

When I first saw this film as a high schooler, I was more inclined to give Godard, a filmmaking hero, the benefit of my patience. I looked at the film as an experimental take on the concert film, and I felt the filmmaker was drawing some profound parallels between the Stones and their appropriation of African-American art. Now, I look at these same scenes and wonder how any Marxist could ever have taken them seriously. The dialogue in this film, when not plagiarized from other sources, is so bad it doesn’t even matter when intrusive, poorly-recorded voiceovers interrupt what people are saying.

Only two films into this series and the group is beginning to age rapidly, as you noted. The difference between the Stones here and in Charlie is My Darling remind me of the Beatles’ metamorphosis between A Hard Day’s Night and Magical Mystery Tour. In both cases, the two bands underwent extraordinary, unfathomable changes, both musical and cosmetic, within a 2-3 year window. Mick and Charlie’s hair is getting longer; Keith, even then, is starting to look a bit rough; Bill Wyman, bless him, is wearing hideous clothes. Among his peers, Brian Jones continues to look and act the same as he did in Charlie. Did you notice how often Godard films him from the back, like a faceless character in a dream? As we’ve argued before, there are portents and portents in these types of films if you choose to look for them.

One final question: what part of the Stones’ recording process were you most excited or intrigued to see as a fan? Was it the “woo-woo” backing vocals, Keith’s soloing (you can hear him biting Hendrix when he goofs off), Richards on bass, or something else? For me, it was about 45 minutes in, when the whole rhythm of the song completely changes to the saucy “Sympathy of the Devil” samba we know and love. Seeing Charlie Watts and assorted percussionists refine the beat is an absolute pleasure, no matter what else Godard surrounds this movie with. And it could have been a much better movie. -NS

AM: Thanks for sharing that Lee Ranaldo video. I think he does a good job of defending the film, which he calls a “complex viewing experience.” That’s fair, but it’s not always a worthwhile viewing experience. The agitprop scenes left even Lee stranded between the times and the tides.

Glad you brought up the cinematography--you’re right that many of the longs takes are quite lovely. As documentary, Godard isn’t able to stage the studio sections in takes as elegant as Touch of Evil. But as the camera roams around the studio, it does capture some great small moments. Like Keith and Brian lighting up, or Jones looking animated while he plays guitar. I didn’t get to your question about Jones in my last response. But those two moments were the ones that stood out to me, where I saw something of a spark. Otherwise, Brian’s a non-entity. He’s clearly no longer The Leader of the Rolling Stones, as he once believed himself to be. It’s no longer his band, and he doesn’t seem to be inserting himself or his ideas into the creative process.

I’m surprised, in fact, that he’s at the studio at all, much less for a recording session spread across several days. His appearances at sessions were pretty sporadic by this point. The moment where Richard tosses matches and cigarettes to Brian stood out to me, since Anita Pallenberg had already left Jones for Richard. That was pretty traumatic for Jones, who was in a Moroccan hospital when Anita made her decision.

The band members are all different people from the ones we saw in Charlie Is My Darling. We don’t hear from them in sit-down interviews, but we don’t need to. The clothes, hair and sound have all metamorphosed. In the sessions Godard captured, they’re sketching out the initial drafts of the sound they’d be exploring for the next decade. That’s reason enough to see their half of this film.

In the video with Lee Ranaldo (love that a copy of Goo is on the table), he mentions that Godard first considered making a film with the Beatles. That’s an interesting “what if?” A version of 1 + 1 based around “Helter Skelter” could be pretty killer--at least in the studio.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Stones on Film Week One: Charlie is My Darling (1965)

Directed by: Peter Whitehead
Available for rent and on DVD

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 one. Archive here.
Aaron: We start with Charlie is My Darling, a film shot over just two days in 1965, as the Stones toured Ireland. Due to legal issues, it didn’t see a real release until late last year.
It’s modest in its ambitions, which works well enough. The real highlight is the concert footage: at two Ireland shows, the band sounds fierce. I don’t think we’re seeing the entirety of either show, but the first one features fast and surprisingly heavy versions of “This May Be The Last Time” and “Time On My Side,” the latter buoyed by precise pounding from Watts, an infusion of electricity and a jangling Keef solo. It primes the audience--seen here in swirling, indistinct masses--to storm the stage and end the show.
The second show starts with fine renditions of “Everybody Needs Somebody” and “Pain In My Heart.” A pummeling “Satisfaction” brings down the house, as a sweaty Jagger shimmies like an angsty scarecrow, Watts grits his teeth, and Wyman even smiles a few times. It brings the song’s angst to the surface--as do the shots of priests keeping watch over the audience, a boy brought to tears, and the police guarding the stage.
Elsewhere, I thought there might be too much music. Did every scene of the Stones in transit need to be papered over with instrumental versions of their music? The brief glimpses of 60’s Ireland were fascinating, and the film didn’t really give them space to breathe. It would have been nice to hear the other acts at these concerts--there were four openers at the second show--but the focus is squarely on the Stones.
I wonder--where was Keith? We heard from all of the other band members in interviews, but not him. What did you think of Mick’s philosophizing? Or Jagger/Richards at work on “Sitting On A Fence”? I thought their quick Beatles covers in that hotel room were one of the film’s best moments.
And what of the famous scene of a wasted Jagger, Richards and Andrew Loog Oldham? Not sure I would let my sister go with those guys.
Nathan: Keith Richards, unlike the other Stones in the movie, never sits down for a proper interview. This might seem curious, given how much of his life story he’s aggressively offered since then. Perhaps Keef was trying to play the role of the taciturn, mute guitar player, a role more suited for Brian Jones (whose interviews here are perhaps the most illuminating and interesting of the set).
However, Keith is still a presence in the live scenes, as well as the hotel room jams, where he is clearly the dominating force. In the moments where we see him play, it is already apparent that underneath this guy’s cool, cigarette-smoking exterior lies a born ham for the cameras. As Mick Jagger says on several occasions throughout the movie, it takes a very egotistical person to get up on stage and command a packed audience of lunatic teenagers.
Charlie is My Darling was filmed by Peter Whitehead, who is also well-known for directing a lot of the key Stones videos of the 60s (such as the LSD-nightmare vision “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows”). He films the scenes in cool black-and-white with handheld cameras, capturing the band both at their most superhuman and at their most vulnerable (and sometimes drunk, as you noted). This naturalistic depiction of the Stones, still new to their element, seems to fall somewhere between Richard Lester’s orgiastic concert scenes in A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and D.A. Pennebaker’s verite approach in Don’t Look Back (1965). Lucky for us that the Stones are much more hospitable interviewees than Dylan. Most interviews are not super illuminating, but Mick Jagger’s philosophizing (as you named it) is at least lucid, didn’t you think?
Still, at a bit more than an hour, Charlie is My Darling feel more like a brief glimpse into a compelling world that falls short of what could have been a defining document of the Stones’ early years. Elsewhere, you cited the overabundance of music in the movie; I wouldn’t say that necessarily, but I do agree that the film is oddly paced. It might have been better served if the musical performances had been spread out more evenly. Then again, the point of the movie is to follow two days in the Stones’ life in chronological order, so fans of linearity in concert docs should be happy.
The performance of “Satisfaction” is, to me, the film’s high point (it’s between that and the riot that ends the previous performance, or maybe when Mick Jagger hums the opening feedback to “I Feel Fine” and knocks over a wine glass). The performance is tremendously guttural and heavy, as if the song was rebuilt for its maximum rave-up potential. I am so glad you cited that wonderful shot of the crying boy and the disapproving look of the priest, which is maybe the one shot in the movie that might belong in the pantheon of great concert movie moments.
What’s also great is that Whitehead returns to interview that priest later. He is not just a disapproving clergy, but a fan of the Stones. His disapproval, he says, is meant for the anarchic mass of teenage girls who interrupt the performances. This is one of a few scenes where Whitehead asks adults around Ireland what they think of the Stones’ music, and they are surprisingly reasonable in their responses. One man, a train conductor, only likes classical music, but his wife is a big fan. He’s okay with it. “That’s where it falls apart--she’s modern and I’m ancient,” he says of his and his wife’s differing tastes. Is it just me, or does it seem like the older Irish of the 60s had a much more level response to the young pop stars of their day than the equivalent British?
One final note: “Sittin’ on the Fence,” the song Mick and Keith (along with silent Charlie) work on together, can be found on one of the Stones’ cheapo greatest hits collections Flowers. Loved seeing the insight, however momentary, into the Jagger/Richards process in chrysalis.
Aaron: That short interview with the priest is one of Charlie is My Darling’s best moments. A lot of the movie’s vox pops aren’t particularly revealing (although I love the moment where the interviewer has to prompt a mass of fans into saying they love Wyman, since they won’t otherwise). But when the young priest admits he digs the Stones (“The Stones themselves I think are good artists”) you learn a lot about him in just a few moments.
It’s those kinds of insights into the world that the Stones were travelling through--and transforming--that I wish we saw more of. From 21st century America, the constant smoking, checkered trousers and analog cult of celebrity are alien concepts. I doubt they were for Whitehead, which is probably why he’s not interested in exploring them.
Keith wouldn’t have given great interviews for the film. For a rock star, he’s admittedly shy, and was not particularly given to self-reflection at that age. But I still wish we could have heard something from him--you get an interesting window on the other Stones through their interviews.
Mick’s philosophizing is, as you note, mostly on-point. “A crowd always seems to make violence,” he remarks--a totally reasonable opinion for someone who’s spent the last years of his life igniting and then fleeing masses of teens. Later on, he says that “the kids are looking for something else.” Something they would soon find, I guess, in drugs or feminism or the Rolling Stones. And sex, which Mick downplays as an important part of his lyrics.
Still, his musings on how the world, and especially the stage, are a stage are sub-Shakespearean. I get the sense that Mick in these interviews was trying to imitate the higher-minded TV talk show guests of those days.
Brian’s interviews are fascinating, and eerily prescient. He speaks in short, breathy bursts. When he says he never thinks far ahead, it’s terrifying. I’m struck by his face. There’s no trace of the hard living, anger and betrayal that were written all over him a few years later. But he’s got this weird gnomic quality--an effete little presence gazing out from under his medieval bob. He can be morbid, but there are also shots of Jones looking lively and happy. From 2013, we know where he’s going to end up, but watching him here I realize that his life didn’t have to end as it did. I’d never considered that before.
Watts seems depressed throughout. He’s always been the nice, normal Stone, but if I had seen this film and knew nothing else of the band, I would assume he quit shortly afterward. He speaks from a daze. Wherever his mind was, it wasn’t Ireland.
What did you think of Andrew Loog Oldham’s presence? On the train between shows, and in a stupor with Mick and Keith, he seems to relish being one of the lads. He seems more average than the bandmembers, but at no moment does he really resemble a businessman. I suppose the cameras weren’t around for that.
One thing Charlie is My Darling gets across well is the band’s rootlessness. They’re constantly on the go, in hotels, airports, cars, and trains. It must be wearying, perhaps explaining Charlie’s defeated outlook. The music business of the time really asked a lot of its stars, having the Stones headline these revues around the world. Shipping them out to different markets, like the records they made.
But everywhere they go, the Stones are playing music. Mostly offstage, just for themselves. It still meant everything to them.
Nathan: “What do you like about Bill Wyman?” (Interviewee turns and walks away).
Your observations about the individual Stones interviews resonated with me. I have often been struck by Brian Jones’ appearance and manner of speaking. Jones is so unnervingly pretty, he seems more like a Christian choir boy than a lead guitarist in a dangerous rock n roll band.
And yet underneath those charming blank features, Brian was an aggressively antisocial individual, even by rock star standards, whose progressive musical vision always outpaced Mick and Keith’s. It is notable and sad that Charlie is My Darling is both the first Rolling Stones documentary that we discuss in this series, and the last time that Brian gets an opportunity to relay his perspectives of the Stones’ success and its attendant difficulties.
You’re right about Mick’s musings re: “the stage,” but from his first spoken words to the camera (“One’s brought up to think that pop music is a very ephemeral thing”), he at least seems invested in saying some things about pop music culture that were relatively new in 1965.
In his review of the film, A.O. Scott said that Mick Jagger looks “at times like a cheeky schoolboy, at others like an earnest graduate student.” This is a different on-camera Mick Jagger we are seeing here, even than the one we would see only a few years later bedecked in war paint in Whitehead videos like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” This is a Jagger who is still processing fame, using the camera to exorcise some very complicated feelings about it. In future documentaries, he will become less devoted to exploring this part of his career in an honest or compelling fashion. That side of his psyche would be explored primarily through his lyrics.
It’s funny, we will be seeing more of Andrew “Loog” Oldham later in our series. He certainly is more of a presence in early Stones documentaries than, say, Ian Stewart. In Charlie, he resembles a slick caddy who somehow roped a job moving the Stones’ luggage. Loog’s role in the film is mostly as a silent foil for Keith, the other main individual who does not appear in interviews. The infamous drunk scene at the end of the film is portentous not only for what it says about the band’s substance problems, but also about how handlers like Loog perpetuated this lifestyle of hard living as a way of marketing the band’s “dangerousness.” No surprise, then, that Whitehead had cameras trained to record this kind of drunken debauchery, even in 1965. It’s a sad, remarkable little scene, with or without the context of what comes later.