Friday Paramount Classics releases Shine A Light, the latest in a long line of films about the Rolling Stones. More than any other band of the time, the Stones gave themselves over to the art of film. The group’s cinematic history is more than a collection of portraits and captured concerts. It’s a summation of the power and the dangers of rock and roll. This week I’ll revisit five (well, four and a half) of the band’s most important moments committed to celluloid.
Sympathy For The Devil (1968, Jean-Luc Goddard)
In 1968 The Rolling Stones had moved well away from the blues covers that were the backbone of their early career and towards the major flowering of the Jagger/Richards songwriting partnership. But the road was bumpy. Their Satanic Majesties Request, released in late ’67, was an indulgent psychedelic opus that won the band more unflattering comparisons to the Beatles than it did sales, and ’68 saw the band scrambling for more familiar cover.
Jean-Luc Godard, meanwhile, was beginning to tire of the constraints of the movement he helped create, the Nouvelle Vague. Week-End had capped the New Wave a year earlier. For Godard ’68 meant moving into densely and overtly political films. He wanted to make a movie about abortion but ended up grafting a series of Situationist vignettes onto footage of the Rolling Stones hammering out ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ at Olympic Sound Studios in suburban London.
Godard wanted to call the film One Plus One (as in the mixture of politics and entertainment represented in the film) but his producer changed the title to Sympathy For The Devil to court the Stones’ fanbase and also grafted a final, complete recording of the title song onto the end of the film. Godard disowned the cut and punched his producer in the face at the premiere.
And though it’s hardly a rock and roll movie in the usual sense of the term, Sympathy For The Devil is a wild, arguably massively pretentious portrait of a few weeks in 1968 and one of the most fascinating movies to feature any major rock group.
The film captures a pure creative environment as the Stones, led implicitly by Keith Richards (he was still Keith Richard at this point; he reinstated the ‘s’ to his name in 1978), work their way through ‘Sympathy’. The song starts off as a slow, fairly dull blues bounce. Over a series of long, uninterrupted takes, we see and hear the song slowly change into the energetic, nearly perfect rock samba that opened Beggar’s Banquet. Hauntingly, the only element that doesn’t change throughout the process is the strummed chord progression played by Brian Jones, soon to be an ex-Stone.
Brian Jones may not obviously seem like he was on his way out, but it’s impossible to watch the movie and not extrapolate details about his role in the band. The founding guitarist, who contributed many of the flourishes of virtuosity that people unfamiliar with the band assume to be Richards’, is here barricaded behind studio partitions, incessantly strumming a guitar that isn’t present at all in the song’s final version and is barely audible even through this window into the recording process.
Godard’s camera pans and roams tethered only to a dolly, moving independent of the music or (seemingly) even of any interest in what the musicians are doing. One shot stands out: a lingering view of the back of Brian Jones’ head. Godard realized what was going on with Jones and the band. The only interaction he lets us see between Jones and anyone else is Keith Richards tossing him a cigarette or two. Knowing what would happen to Jones a year later, his physical estrangement from the process is almost heartbreaking.
(A more amusing estrangement is the way Bill Wyman is relegated to shaker duty after failing to find a bass line; Richards plays bass on the song.)
‘Sympathy For The Devil’ is an unlikely song for Godard to have captured. It would eventually finalize Mick Jagger’s image in the British press as a pop-culture Mephistopheles. And because Godard chose to counterpoint the Stones’ takes with equally long visualizations of then-current radical theory, the song is wildly appropriate.
You’ll see extended sequences of Black Panthers passing guns to one another or executing white virgins and the vapid interview between the press and Eve Democracy as Jagger spins his tale about a diabolical all-revolutionary force. None of the Stones ever speak, except to engage in typical recording studio banter. But the political context comes into a strange focus if you notice Jagger pluralizing ‘who killed Kennedy’ partway through the film. (The song was recorded from June 4-10. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 6.)
There’s a suggestive power to the juxtaposed sequences. They’re linked into the Stones footage by brief interludes of a woman spray painting slogans on London streets and the voice of a narrator, who reads from an invented pulp novel featuring pornographic passages and the names of world figures. (The narration is chilling in that it resembles the voice-over and general tone of Alphaville, Godard’s vision of dystopian science fiction.)
But is there actually anything going on, or is Godard willfully spouting obscure political nonsense? I very honestly don’t know, and as is typical in that situation, I assume there’s something I’m not quite able to grok. Some of the content, as indicated by the pulp narration, is willfully absurd. And the specifics of the political ideas now seem dramatically outdated at best and, as Situationist texts were notoriously convoluted, even intentionally alienating.
If nothing else, an inexplicable symmetry pulses between the music and the politics Godard is (possibly) articulating. There’s an ideal level of superficial interplay between the music and political posturing with a few moments that glare brightly, as when a Black Panther reciting from a pamphlet says “I try, I try, I try” and though it’s not on the soundtrack you can hear ‘Satisfaction’ echoing in your head, now fraught with some new meaning.
Godard’s camera eye is cold and supremely clear. Every visual detail of the studio pops out, but Olympic Studios seems less visually vibrant and alive than the colorful and beautiful images of the political scenes. That’s what remains in my mind once the film is done, impressionistic flashes of interminable scenes I’ll want to scrub forward through when I see the film again, shots that in memory combine with the relentless forward evolution of this diabolical pop song to create the illusion of something about to happen.
I won’t pretend to explain any more than that; I simply can’t do it. That I’ve yet to come across anyone who can do so convincingly is beside the point. Godard’s film is supremely suggestive, which is exactly the power of this particular song. We see and hear just enough to feel like we know all the details. And so at the end, when on a staged beach film set we see Godard himself madly directing as a white man chases a black militant and ‘kills’ his white female companion and the narrator says “it was all a waste of time, I’ve got to get away from this mess, so long” as ‘Sympathy’ comes up on the soundtrack, you might pretend you know a flash of what it was like to be there.
And then you’ll wake up and realize that this perfect nugget of a pop song is more lasting and broad in impact than the radical politics of 1968. Things did join together, one plus one, but not in the way Godard (and, as we’ll see, the Stones) visualized. The death of Brian Jones might echo the dwindling of this radical political impulse, but an echo is all it is. Is that enough? Is it even meaningful? I can’t tell you that, either.