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.

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