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.

1 comment:

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