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PRINT November 2012

IT’S ONLY ROCK ’N’ ROLL: THE ROLLING STONES IN FILM

Robert Frank, Cocksucker Blues, 1972, 16 mm, color and black- and-white, sound, 93 minutes. Mick Jagger. Photo: Photofest.

As the “world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band” celebrates its golden jubilee this year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York pays tribute with a heady cinematic survey: “THE ROLLING STONES: 50 YEARS OF FILM” (NOVEMBER 15–DECEMBER 2). But 2012 marks another anniversary as well. Forty years ago, the Stones embarked on a legendary tour to promote their new album, Exile on Main St., and they engaged two very different filmmakers—Robert Frank and Rollin Binzer—to document the affair on celluloid, producing wildly divergent results: Cocksucker Blues and Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, respectively. Film historian DAVID E. JAMES traces the events that would ultimately transform the band’s extraordinary engagement with the medium—and with the very public on which not only their stardom but their cultural significance depended.

WITH THE BEATLES’ FINAL PERFORMANCE on the roof of the Apple Records building at the beginning of 1969, documented in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s film Let It Be (1970), the Rolling Stones’ claim to being the greatest rock band in the world was now uncontested. And for the next several years they would dominate rock ’n’ roll, itself the dominant cultural phenomenon of the era. Like other star musicians—Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in earlier periods, Elvis Presley and the Beatles closer to their own—they crossed over to cinema as their fame grew. But the Stones were unique in attracting the attention of some of the most important avant-garde filmmakers of their time: Peter Whitehead, who made the band’s first major film, Charlie Is My Darling (1965)—a restored and expanded version of which is being released this month—and Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), was followed by Jean-Luc Godard (One Plus One [Sympathy for the Devil] [1968]), Kenneth Anger (Invocation of My Demon Brother [1969]), Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter [1970]), Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg (Performance [1970]), and Robert Frank (Cocksucker Blues [1972]). (The Rolling Stones would, of course, remain intermittently involved in making films for decades to come, enlisting the services of Hal Ashby and Martin Scorsese, among others.)

Most of these films were concert documentaries, rock ’n’ roll equivalents of the classic backstage musical, but their various forms of experimentalism challenged the direct-cinema tradition of music documentary that had developed from D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967) through his Monterey Pop (1968) and Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970). That tradition collapsed—along with our mythic identification of the Stones with diabolical outlaws and the black underclass—in the making of Gimme Shelter, a film famously documenting the last week of the band’s enormously successful 1969 US tour and the free concert given after it, on December 6 of that year, at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco. There, in the last month of the ’60s, local Hells Angels who had been casually recruited to protect the stage terrorized people in the audience and some of the musicians, then stabbed to death a young African-American man who had pulled a gun and allegedly pointed it at the band as they were performing. Days later, the Berkeley Tribe, the most popular underground paper in the Bay Area, announced: “Stones Concert Ends It: America Now Up for Grabs.” Receiving codirector credit with the Maysleses for editing the film, Charlotte Zwerin abandoned the principles of observational, noninterventionist filmmaking, persuading the brothers to invite the Stones, months later, to watch the footage from Altamont, when for the first time they would witness the killing, in slow motion. With astonishing intimacy, the filmmakers thus captured Mick Jagger’s and Charlie Watts’s unguarded reactions to a tragedy in which they had been unwilling participants (and of which, perhaps, they were the unwitting authors). Zwerin then intercut this indelible material with the Maysleses’ footage of the Stones’ tour, producing a modernist, fragmented, and achronological montage-structured film—one that figured Altamont as the apotheosis of the tour, and the killing, in turn, as the ultimate meaning of Altamont. Especially as it was contrasted with Woodstock, released eight months earlier and celebrating what was purportedly the utopian culmination of the era, Gimme Shelter furnished innumerable bromides about the dystopian ending of the ’60s. The Stones’ next tour of the United States (and Canada), in support of their double album Exile on Main St., was also documented on celluloid—this time in two films, very different from Gimme Shelter and from each other: Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues and Rollin Binzer’s Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones (1974).

In spring 1972, most of the Stones were in Los Angeles putting the finishing touches on Exile. Jagger, who had recently discovered Frank’s photographic collection The Americans (1958), invited the Swiss-born artist to shoot the album cover. But by the end of the ’50s, Frank had turned from still photography to film, collaborating, for example, with Alfred Leslie on the seminal underground film Pull My Daisy (1959), an ostensibly spontaneous and improvised short featuring Allen Ginsberg, Larry Rivers, Alice Neel, and other Beat generation icons. For the front of the gatefold cover, the album’s graphic designer, John Van Hamersveld, used a detail of Frank’s photograph Tattoo Parlor, 8th Avenue, New York City, 1958, and for the obverse and inside spread, as well as for the two record sleeves, he made collages of single frames and filmstrips blown up from the eight-minute film Frank shot of the band, S-8 Stones Footage from Exile on Main St. (1972), together with several photographs from The Americans.

Peter Whitehead, Charlie Is My Darling, 1965, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 35 minutes. Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Bill Wyman. Production still. Photo: Irish Photo Archive.

Frank had filmed the Stones walking along Los Angeles’s Main Street, a working-class business district close to Skid Row, and they posed for him in the lush garden of Jagger’s rented Bel Air mansion. The jerky, handheld, low-resolution, and supposedly unedited footage is in fact intercut with shots of an African-American man strumming a toy guitar on the Bowery in New York and fleeting images of Jagger’s baby. Back on Main Street, the band are seen strolling unhindered on downtown sidewalks, passing signage for movie theaters, shoeshines, coffee shops, and pawnshops. Then, after posed group shots and individual close-ups in the garden, the scene shifts back to the Bowery, where another African-American man is seen dancing with great animation and bravura among cars in the street as he tries to earn tips for wiping windshields. This raw footage ends as abruptly as it began.

The work’s informality reflects Frank’s underground aesthetic, and though the film is brief and enigmatic, it suggests that Frank associated the Stones with the alienated, sometimes minority, outsiders of The Americans. The locations and the in-camera montage link the band with the poor and with destitute black street artists. But the Stones are exiles on Main Street, forced into tax exile from England in part by the mismanagement of their considerable income. Visiting Skid Row with their long hair and exotic clothing, they are slumming tourists from another world and another social stratum. Similar tensions between entitlement and sleaze likewise inhabit Frank’s other film about the Stones.

By 1972, the band’s always tenuous association with progressive social movements had seeped away in Keith Richards’s heroin addiction and Jagger’s ascent to high society. But, despite Altamont, the Stones had no intention of abandoning their place at the eye of a scofflaw crossfire cultural hurricane and always closed their set with the incendiary “Street Fighting Man.” Beginning with the first concert in Vancouver, the two-month, thirty-city tour was marked by riots, injuries, and arrests in half a dozen cities. Events backstage were often similarly violent and debauched. In response to the still-angry Hells Angels’ threats on Jagger’s life, Richards packed a revolver throughout, while the sex and drugs in the tour’s extended parties, including a three-day stay at the Chicago Playboy Mansion, reached epic levels.

Cocksucker Blues follows what had become the standard structure of the rock ’n’ roll backstage-musical film, alternating between the spectacle of onstage performance and the narrative of the offstage scenes that link them. But scarcely fifteen of its ninety minutes are sync-sound performance footage, all of which was shot in color with energetically gestural handheld camera. The more extended, mostly black-and-white, offstage scenes are, for the most part, a blur of apparently inconsequential fragments: the band warming up backstage, for example, or listlessly killing time in hotel rooms. Apart from the title sequence introducing the band members, no people, places, or dates are ever identified. With these remaining anonymous and the punctuation supplied by the concert performances being the only internal cues to structure, the film appears repetitively to recur to indistinguishable events, developing randomly and formlessly—precisely mirroring Frank’s experience of the monotony, insulation, and isolation of life on tour.

Equipped with his 16-mm Eclair, Frank and his soundman and sometime cameraman, Danny Seymour, had unrestricted access (except to the Playboy orgies), and the narrative does contain several clearly demarcated sequences, a few of them quite sensational. The most substantial are an in-flight “orgy,” in which two groupies are stripped and perhaps pressed to perform sex acts (only one of which is glimpsed) while a third copulates with an unidentified man in the background, urged on by the tour party led by Jagger and Richards, who beat on makeshift percussion instruments; a backstage visit by such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Lee Radziwill, Ahmet Ertegun, and Truman Capote; an extended scene in Jagger and his wife’s hotel room; a drive through the rural South in which Jagger, Richards, and others escape from the entourage, encounter a white country singer, and visit an African-American juke joint, dramatizing their engagement with the two forms of vernacular American roots music that informed Exile on Main St.; a long take of a recumbent naked woman, stroking what would seem to be a prodigious load of semen on her breasts in post­coital reverie while her legs remain wide-open to the camera; a comical interlude in which we hear an obviously stoned Richards attempting to order fruit from room service; a long scene in which Seymour helps a beautiful young woman shoot heroin in her arm; a now-legendary escapade in which Richards and saxophonist Bobby Keys throw a television set from a hotel window; and scenes from Dick Cavett’s television show in which he interviews Bill Wyman and Jagger and reports on the New York concert. Most of these sequences appear to be observed from life as it passes in direct-cinema fashion, but internal evidence corroborates accounts that others were staged: Conversation reveals that the aforementioned “semen” was actually pHisoHex, a skin cleanser, applied to the woman’s torso for the benefit of the camera; before dumping the television, Richards is heard asking Frank, “Tell us when?”; and the orgy appears to be self-consciously staged for the camera. Together with the insistent reflexivity asserted by the many shots of people with movie cameras and the disjuncture of sound from image in the editing, such moments where the profilmic is clearly not uncontrolled parallel Zwerin’s abandonment of direct cinema’s noninterventionist ideals in Gimme Shelter.

Still from Robert Frank’s S-8 Stones Footage from Exile on Main St., 1972, Super 8, black- and-white, silent, 8 minutes.

Like similarly lubricious and attention-grabbing incidents in the lyrics of Exile on Main St.’s sprawling, layered murkiness, these sensational scenes punctuate the movie’s overall tedium, making it something of a “dirty blues,” like Exile’s “Ventilator Blues,” perhaps. Such an intention is suggested early on in the film, in an interview with Marshall Chess, the tour manager and the movie’s producer. Sitting in his underpants, he gleefully recounts how the Stones had been planning to play a recording of “Schoolboy Blues” (aka “Cocksucker Blues”) at a meeting with Sir Edward Lewis, the head of Decca Records and a “very stuffy Englishman.” Indeed, Jagger had written the song to fulfill a contractual obligation to the company, which the Stones had left to start their own label; he made the lyrics so obscene (“Oh, where can I get my cock sucked? / Where can I get my ass fucked?”) that Decca could not profit from a single. The song gave Chess the idea for a pornographic album, “a modern version of a party record,” and thence the idea for a “dirty” film. As the realization of that project, Cocksucker Blues is “dirty” both ethically and formally, its salacious content matched by offenses against filmic propriety. Apart from the music, the film’s high points are the graphic scenes of sex and drug taking. These “dirty” scenes are reproduced in an insistently dirty style: Shot with handheld cameras, the footage is grainy, often poorly exposed, some of it obviously blown up from 8 mm, and some of it tinged a disconcerting blue that makes the work literally as well as metaphorically a blue movie. The debauched content or the insistently primitive production values alone would have sufficed to sabotage the film’s commercial viability, but it was the content that ensured the film would never appear in theaters. Jagger is reputed to have said, “It’s a fucking good film, Robert, but if it shows in America we’ll never be allowed in the country,”¹ and the Stones sued to prevent its release, succeeding in restricting screenings of Cocksucker Blues to once a year, with the stipulation that Frank himself be present.² Today, Frank’s print is in such poor condition that he no longer likes to screen it.

If the rock ’n’ roll film genre had come to center on relations between the musicians and their fans, utopian in Woodstock and catastrophic in Gimme Shelter, Cocksucker Blues almost entirely excludes the audience, returning to the structure of the first direct-cinema rock ’n’ roll film, Dont Look Back. No longer are even the boldest concertgoers allowed to enact the music’s ecstatic violence by rushing the stage and performing the ritual attacks that recur in virtually every previous Stones documentary, all the way back to Charlie Is My Darling, which captured the mania of Irish fans on the band’s 1965 tour. Apart from brief scenes of an acidhead girl and excited kids in the street, the wider rock ’n’ roll community has been replaced in Cocksucker Blues by the court: the STP, or Stones Touring Party. This world is hermetic in its privilege; garrisoned by a phalanx of security, it is impervious to all but other members of the media aristocracy and those who minister to the STP—groupies and drug dealers in particular. The royal preeminence of Jagger, then Richards, then the other band members, is absolutely hierarchical, and the amateur folk commonality celebrated in Monterey Pop and Woodstock has been jettisoned for the visibly professionalized production crew of commodity entertainment and its attendant social relations. Onstage, the Stones’ life is electrifying rock ’n’ roll; offstage, it is rationalized, tedious, and repetitive, enlivened only by sex and drugs. But even these, the contemporary equivalents of wine and women, appear to lack their emancipatory promise: Disposable groupies administer free love, and the mind-expanding visions of LSD are dulled by Sister Morphine.

Formally adhering to the principles of direct-cinema documentary, Cocksucker Blues has no comprehensive voice-of-God narration, and viewers are left to make their own evaluation of its ethics and of the ethics of the transactions it depicts. But whether a moralistic exposé of the Rolling Stones’ degeneracy or a garland of their beautiful flowers of evil—and another case in which Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film,” as Jack Kerouac once remarked about The Americans—the film was an affront to cinema. Ever since the Stones’ legal maneuvers secured the prohibition of its commercial release, Cocksucker Blues has existed more as myth than reality, seen only in occasional, semiclandestine screenings or on video dubs that merely exacerbate the original’s poor visual quality. Like Un chien Andalou (1929) and other early Dada films, or like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) and later punk films, it negated the possibility of its own existence in the institutions of mainstream cinema. In making “Cocksucker Blues,” a record that could not be distributed, Jagger had both fulfilled and repudiated the Stones’ contractual obligation to Decca; in making Cocksucker Blues, Frank—however unintentionally—reenacted Jagger’s strategy, bequeathing a deliberately contradictory testament to the contradictions of the Stones’ music, but one so incriminating that they had to suppress it. It would be the Stones’ last avant-garde film.

Filmstrip from Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, 1972, 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 93 minutes. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

The excesses and misdeeds recorded in Cocksucker Blues shaped the other film of the tour as well, if only by rigorous exclusion. Shot during four shows in Fort Worth and Houston, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones combines footage from all of them; only costume changes reveal that it is not one continuous event. Of the set list’s standard seventeen songs, fifteen are performed in their entirety. Though appropriately rough in spots, the fabricated concert captures the Stones at the zenith of their career, their best performances with their best-ever lineup, prominently featuring Mick Taylor winding his mellifluous melodic lines through Richards’s angular riffs. But unlike any previous rock ’n’ roll film, no debauchery or other narrative context interrupts the spectacle of the concert itself. Not a single off- or backstage event is shown, and though the audience is heard, it is not so much as glimpsed until the finale. The film begins in silence and darkness, which, after the tour logo and the title, are gradually interrupted by the voices of stage technicians, the sound of someone playing fleeting scales on the piano, and odd flickers of light. A voice announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Rolling Stones,” and the crowd roars. Spotlights find Watts and Richards onstage, followed by Jagger, who urges a barely audible “Let’s go, Keith,” churns his hips, and jumps in the air as they launch into “Brown Sugar.”

Photographed with two cameras on relatively small stages that crowd the musicians together, the images are flattened by the telephoto lenses Binzer mostly used, and made additionally grainy and textured by the pools of monochrome red or blue stage lighting in which the musicians performed, surrounded by darkness. Dispensing with master shots, Binzer constructs the musical numbers out of myriad short takes with marked shifts in camera angle and focal length, cut to punctuate line or phrase breaks in a given song. These contrasts play within or across the simplified but likewise highly contrastive stage lighting: In one shot, for example, Jagger’s whole body is illuminated as a red mass against the darkness, while in the next he is backlit so that only a red halo silhouettes his head and hair. Almost all the visuals are close-ups or medium shots rarely depicting more than two people, though occasional longer, wide-angle takes occur: In the slow interlude of an especially good rendition of “Midnight Rambler,” for example, the cameraman moves in and out to follow Jagger’s extended histrionics. Otherwise, the montage’s reciprocation of the Stones’ musical rambunctiousness is almost as sophisticated as that of the finale of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Positioned in the middle of the band, the viewer looks this way and that, becoming optically and aurally enmeshed in the excitement. The performance of the first two and a half minutes of “Brown Sugar” in Cocksucker Blues is a single take, shot from in front of the stage with the cameraman limited to panning from Jagger to the other musicians with occasional very slight zooms, interrupted by only a cluster of half a dozen barely noticeable short shots, some nearly subliminal. By contrast, the first two and a half minutes of the same song in Ladies and Gentlemen yield nearly sixty shots (none lasting more than a few seconds), including close-ups on Jagger and other musicians from several angles, medium shots of two or three performers, and even intermittent wider shots in which half a dozen are seen, at least partially. Though, like Cocksucker Blues, Ladies and Gentlemen is a sync-sound documentary, distanced realism is here replaced by ecstatic montage. But the film offers no commentary, no evidence of rock ’n’ roll’s social implications, and no narrative apart from that of the spectator’s implied attendance at a concert. Attempting to provide the filmgoer an ideal concert experience, one unattainable in real life, Ladies and Gentlemen is more completely spectacle than any previous rock ’n’ roll film, the one that most entirely presents itself as a cinematic surrogate for a concert.

In its review, Variety made this crucial generic distinction: “The premise behind the rockumentary ‘Ladies and Gentlemen The Rolling Stones’ is, as its credits make clear, to present a ‘film concert’ rather than a ‘concert film’—a film with narrative or even documentary shape.”³ Its mode of distribution attempted to make the experience of the movie as similar as possible to that of the concert. Shot in 16 mm and recorded on thirty-two tracks, the film was blown up to 35 mm and the sound mixed down to four-track Quadrasound. It was sold to an investment group and received a limited four-wall release in 1974, only in major cities in the US, in theaters equipped for the occasion with special speakers and with a professional sound mixer in attendance, thereby replicating the auditory and visual experience of an actual concert—and reiterating and extending the concert’s commodity function.⁴

Jean-Luc Godard, One Plus One (Sympathy for the Devil), 1968, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes. Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones.

Ladies and Gentlemen thus became the dialectical complement to Cocksucker Blues. Frank’s film was bad, as dirty as feasible in both form and content; it flaunted its minimal production values as the earnest of an aesthetic of unflinching authenticity. But both sound and image in Ladies and Gentlemen are as good as could be. Where Cocksucker Blues’s relative paucity of concert material shifted the emphasis to the backstage narrative and the tour party’s social activities, Ladies and Gentlemen is entirely onstage spectacle. Where Cocksucker Blues’s exposé, if not evisceration, of the Stones Touring Party had little economic potential in itself and added nothing to the band’s capital value, Ladies and Gentlemen’s repetition of the Stones’ musical performance reenacts and extends its cultural and economic function. As the culmination of a process that began with the short films the band made to promote their singles, and which substituted for the Stones themselves on television shows, Ladies and Gentlemen also betokened their future direction.

Developments across the three US concert films clarify a more comprehensive development. Though Gimme Shelter has relatively few intimate, behind-the-scenes moments, both it and Cocksucker Blues juxtapose musical with nonmusical events to present the Stones in a social context. The relation between spectacle and narrative maps the band’s social significance, specifically the refraction in the public sphere of the Stones’ musical and social delinquency. Gimme Shelter envisions their invocation of unruly, perhaps demonic, musical energy as precipitating a real rather than symbolic social chaos—and one that they are impotent to control. Three years later, Cocksucker Blues would emphasize their privileged degeneracy. Their stardom has garnered the Stones a prestige that allows them to rub elbows with both the cultural elite and the marginally criminal, from whose ranks they drafted a coterie of underlings and sycophants, united by the currency of destructive drugs and exploitative sexuality, a demimonde that largely excludes the wider social world.

As it turned out, Frank’s film brought to an end cinema’s investigation of the Stones’ social meaning. Cocksucker Blues was not only the last significant film about the Stones made by an avant-garde filmmaker—it was the last made by an independent party of any kind. With Ladies and Gentlemen, the band took control of their own representation and made cinema an extension of their stage shows. Throughout the rock ’n’ roll film’s history, the intra­diegetic audience had stood as a surrogate for the cinematic audience, modeling the public’s relation to the music and the musicians and creating an imagined countercultural community. Ladies and Gentlemen’s exclusion of the audience dismantled the mechanism of projection whereby moviegoers were able to envision a social relationship between the audience and the music and between audience and film alike. As far as cinema was concerned, the Stones no longer had a social story and would appear thereafter essentially as commodity musicians. The attempt to fathom their meaning had been abandoned, and the only narrative remaining to them would be that of the spectacle itself. Conversely, the excluded audience now existed only as paying customers for the film. Rather than being the image and practice of a community, Stones’ cinema would henceforth present rock ’n’ roll as sheer commodity.

From this point on, for the Stones there would be no more concert films, only filmed concerts. Beginning with the giant inflatable phallus and lotus-flower-shaped stage of the “Tour of the Americas ’75,” created by a Broadway set designer, the Stones’ subsequent concerts were designed to be spectacular, competing as they were with the extravagant stadium productions that had become de rigueur in the early 1970s. As the films became surrogate concerts, integrated into an increasingly coordinated production of records, videos, DVDs, T-shirts, and whatever other commodities the music engendered, the concerts became increasingly cinematic. The set for the “Bridges to Babylon” tour in 1997–98, for example, included a huge screen that towered above the stage and showed live close-ups of the band members along with simultaneous video special effects. Finally, with Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light (2008), a concert would be performed specifically for the manufacture of a film.

“The Rolling Stones: 50 Years of Film,” organized by associate curator Joshua Siegel, opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on November 15 and runs through December 2.

Charlie Is My Darling is being rereleased in expanded form on DVD and Blu-ray and at select theaters worldwide this month.

David E. James, a professor in the school of cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, is currently at work on a history of the rock ’n’ roll film.

NOTES

1. As cited in Allen Ginsberg, “Robert Frank to 1985—A Man” in Anne Wilkes Tucker, ed., Robert Frank: New York to Nova Scotia (Boston: Little, Brown, 1986), 76.

2. The settlement between Frank and the Rolling Stones is not a matter of public record, and differing accounts of the terms of that agreement abound.

3. Rino, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones,” Variety, April 17, 1974, 6. Emphasizing Jagger’s ambisexuality, the reviewer noted that his “whirling dervish abandon is updated Weimar cabaret—a species of campy evil.” The film generally received mixed to poor reviews.

4. After its initial release and apart from video bootlegs, the film was generally unavailable until the Stones reacquired rights to it. A digitally remastered version was released theatrically in 2010 and subsequently on DVD.