Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Rock on Film Pt 5: Stones on Film Pt 1: Lo Expectations

The Rolling Stones played it very cannily in the 60s when they rose to stardom. Instead of accepting the shade of the untouchably successful Beatles they went for an alter ego approach. The Beatles do Yesterday, a weepy love song, The Stones come out with As Tears Go By, a very odd song about ageing. The Four of the Law bring out the Staxy brass section of Got to Get You Into My Life about love or weed (depending on the available memory neurones of author Paul) and the Rogues from Richmond produce Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby,  Standing in the Shadow a kind of pre-Zappa freakout about … well, it’s hard to tell. And when the long haired lovers from Liverpool made movies they were (at least the first two) cute and lovable. The Stones were slated to appear in movies with sci fi/dystopian themes (A Clockwork Orange was one of them) but none got beyond amber. So when they did get to the screen it was as themselves, not characters with the same names.


 Jean Luc Godard had not so much started the French New Wave as hijacked it with films that swung a wrecking ball at Hollywood conventions yet still offered riches once the dust settled. Breathless was great cheeky fun, A Woman is a Woman was glorious non-musical musical. Les Mepris and Alphaville were more disturbing and took JLG’s journey into increasingly radical territory. He grew increasingly political and as he did he widened the distance between his films and everyone else’s (not just Hollywood’s). After the failure of the revolt in May ’68 his anger turned to rage and his screen output turned violent in form and content, wilfully challenging his audience to stay the distance. They didn’t. The pity of it is that some strong (if admittedly gruelling) works he produced between 1968 and 1972 are often dimissed and fans of the initial period tend to change the subject when Wind from the East or British Sounds come up in conversation. And when this one makes it’s way into the air it’s met with over defence or over denigration. But it really stands by itself.

The One Plus One title is Godard’s and describes what’s seen aptly if cryptically. Sympathy for the Devil was the producer’s title and the one that appeared on the cinema billboard on the film’s release. Why the difference? Well, the content that features the Stones is of them developing the song Sympathy for the Devil in the studio from an acoustic strum to the big pre-roots epic it became. The difference in the titles lies at the heart of the problem of the film’s reception: one requires active thought and the other promises a film that the audience is not going to see.

This is not a musical film and it’s not really about the Stones. It’s about a chasm Godard perceived between the kind of political activism he saw fail in Paris that year and the culture of the people whom he thought should be politically active: youth. The film has three main strains: the Stones in the studio, a group of urban guerrillas in training and spoken excerpts from an imaginary espionage novel in which the characters have names from contemporary political history like Castro or Kruschev. See, if all you wanted to see was Mick ‘n’ co going through the different stages of a rock classic then you are going to be sitting through a lot of information noise. Calling the film by the song title suggests that the focus will be on the band but that’s not the movie’s purpose.

The most common gripe I hear about this film concerns the scenes with the guerrillas. There is a lot of sloganeering and it is easy to characterise the scenes as naive or dated politics. But there’s a point to all the dogma and it ties in with the film perfectly if you think of it being called One Plus One. The young men are assembled in a car scrapyard and go through a kind of weapons training with rifles and some political education. It’s tedious but look closer. The weapons training is not just repetitive, it’s robotic, as meaninglessly ceremonial. The political education consists of flatvoiced dogma delivered by tape recorder and copied down without a single independent thought getting in the way. (There is also a scene in a bookshop where a young man dictates extracts from Nietzsche and Hitler etc to a typist, just to suggest the streetlevel right.)The alphas in the guerrilla group meet with women who at first seem to be journalists but soon seem more like groupies (these women author the sole political acts in the film –

Back at the studio, Mick plays the four chord song to Brian on an acoustic. It sounds like a bedroom songwriter’s effort. Then when the band eventually appear and plug in, it takes on a more late ‘60s tone, a melancholy lament. Something isn’t right, it’s not taking off.  Eventually, they bring in extra percussion, Keith takes over on bass and finds the famous punching pattern. It’s starting to sound like the real thing. Mick does a vocal and flubs it but we’re really getting there. Then, wow, the girlfriends, wives and significant others gather round a mic and do the whoo whoo backing vocals that send this number soaring. Ladies and gentlemen we have a classique!

There’s also a lot of between time, idle cigarette smoking and waiting but the sense of the band warming up from cold and really having an uncontrived sense of purpose is constantly developing on screen. So…

You get a group of young men with nothing to lose getting together, playing at being revolutionaries and even picking up groupies along the way. You get a group of rich young men who can stay in bed all day gathering in concerted effort to pursue greatness. What, Godard asks, is wrong with this picture?

That’s what I think this film is saying. I don’t see a frame of symbolism on the screen. You can take what you see with all the literalism that a Gen-Y-er obedient to the stereotype would demand and still get to the essence of it. It does require more active thought from its viewers than anything at a multiplex (that’s not snobbery, btw, mainstream cinema can no longer afford risking its audience’s attention with complexity). But if it’s Sympathy for the Devil the song is in the way. If it’s One Plus One, you have a fighting chance.

Had enough? Well, it gets lighter.

The closest thing to any of the first three Beatles movies that the Stones ever did is still only a concert film … kinda.

The idea was to get together with some friends and new talent on the rise, put it all in the colour and fun of a circus. The Stones appear in circus costume and introduce various musical or circus acts and a splendid time is attempted for all.

It almost works. This era in rock music was given to extra colour and flare. It was just post acid and the idea of mixing extended guitar solos with clown makeup fitted perfectly (Jimi Hendrix was infamously once ignored at a bar because they thought he was from the local circus). But there are two problems: the circus acts are of such different pace and mood to the music that they feel wrong; the music acts’ quality is too various. Jethro Tull and Marianne Faithful each mime their numbers.

John Lennon and Mick Jagger exchange some genuinely funny banter by way of introducing the latter’s piece. Lennon’s song is great. An appropriately nasty sounding Yer Blues fresh from the White Album. Whole Lotta Yoko is less stellar but not because of Yoko. She wails a la mode. The rest of the band (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience) waste some interminable minutes playing some twelve bar garbage (what else do you play with rock musicians you don’t know well?) under the vocal. Worst of all, though, is the participation of Ivry Gitlis, a classical violin virtuoso who tries to get down with the kidz but really only shows that he is incapable of improvising over three endlessly repeated chords. I’ve never been able to watch this entire sequence. I’ve come to believe that one can actually die of embarrassment if one did.

(A dvd extra shows classical pianist Julius Katchen similarly wasting his time in a tux at a piano playing something he probably thinks sounds like the classical equivalent of takenoprisonersballsout roque. He even sweats like a lead guitarist only to lie on the cutting room concrete until someone picked him up and folded him into the bonus features. Puh!)

A top hatted, cigar smoking Keith Richards in an eyepatch says, “dig the Who.” And we do for they provide a non-stop proto pilates work out with an early version of an extended rock narrative, A Quick One While He’s Away. This is not note perfect but gloriously live, punching every second of its welcome running time. Completely bloody wonderful, in fact.

John Lennon introduces the night’s hosts in typically smartarse fashion and here we come to a persistent legend surrounding the decades long non-release of this film. The old guy at the campfire who everyone just assumes is the uncle of one of the others will insist that The Stones suppressed Rock and Roll Circus because the Who blew them off the stage. So peeved were the Jagster and his hood that so electric shadow could be cast through this piece of celluloid so long as they all should live (a fair few of them haven’t but that’s neither here nor there).

The Stones take the stage with a muscular version of Jumping Jack Flash and go through songs from their newest releases and one future classic (You Can’t Always Get What You Want). Do they drag after the Who? Well, considering they started filming at 2pm and only got to play at 5 the following morning, no.

Actually, even without considering that they play well. Jagger’s frontman DNA kicks into survival mode and he keeps the boil hot through the set. They finish with Sympathy for the Devil. It’s vibey and powerful, Jagger peeling off his skin tight top at the end to reveal a mean looking torso-sized tattoo of a demonic figure which would look like the worst drunken decision of his life if it wasn’t just felt-penned on.  But, no, great as they are in this, the Who do not put the Stones to shame. The issue of the delayed release would have had more to do with licencing than anything else (final period Beatles bugbear Allen Klein’s involvement might extend a clue or tue).

It’s these performances that compel the viewing of this film. Circuses strike me as despairing voids as far as entertainment goes and I’ve never sat through any of the circusy offerings here. But the better performances are great rock music from a time when it didn’t just sound like old bloke’s beats (as it does to me now even when played by young blokes).

The finale is also worth it as it is a testament to the personal logistics of the exercise. Audience and acts gather together on the floor in glistering harlequin colours. Jagger and Keith sit beside each other. Mick comes up with some unslept words before the backing track to Salt of the Earth wafts in. Keith takes the mic to deliver the first two lines in his customary Venusianly enunciated singing voice and when Mick takes over for the rest of the tune he sounds like Louis Armstrong during the worst hangover of his life. It’s funny but it’s sad.

The assembled company then get into it and the whole thing ends in a colour and movement extravaganza for the whole family (or part thereof).

The conceiver in chief of this film, Michael Lindsay Hogg, would move on within a month to film the Beatles steadily disintegrating in Let it Be

Next in this mini series: Gimme Shelter and Cocksucker Blues


  1. The Who's Quick One is my favourite ever live track. Loved it ever since I saw it in The Kids are Alright at the cinema in 1979.

  2. The new dvd of Kids has the full performance in it. Now that RnR Circus is out on a good dvd you get a little more context.