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.

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