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.

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968/1996, Michael Lindsay-Hogg)

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, an old-timey show staged for television but never released until 1996, will probably seem like a lightweight pursuit compared to the other films in this series. Sympathy puts the Stones eerily in sync with political force; Gimme Shelter will prove them able to raise an army, if not control it; and Cocksucker Blues presents the dynamics of a band in thrall to it’s own legend.

In contrast, this really is just a circus. It shows the five original musicians as a simple pack of entertainers. And a tired pack, at that.

That’s exactly why it’s a perfect complement. Even when we see the band as flawed in other productions — and they always seem so very, very flawed — there’s also something much larger than life about them. Mick, Keef & Co. legitimately earned their mythic status with personality, songwriting and showmanship, and there’s something irresistible about seeing some of that mojo fail.

Here they’re just a bunch of guys with famous friends trying to follow through on Mick Jagger’s idea to put a different type of concert before the public. And if you don’t buy all the mythic rock claptrap, or if you’re just a Beatles fan, there are still too many massive rock moments in the space of an hour not to consider. Take Tony Iommi performing (well, miming) with Jethro Tull. Or The Who delivering one of their best filmed performances, raw yet impeccably composed. How about John Lennon making his first stage appearance without the Beatles since the band’s inception?

And arching over all of that, the fact that this is the last public performance of Brian Jones with the Rolling Stones. Seven months later he’d be found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool.

As the ringleader, Jagger hired Michael Lindsay-Hogg, a director who’d worked previously with the Stones and would eventually make Let It Be. But technical problems plagued the shoot, which started in the afternoon and wouldn’t finish until almost dawn the next day. By then the invited audience (dressed in hats and colored ponchos) was weary and the Stones looked dead on their feet.

The Who played early and they look great. The band absolutely tears into ‘A Quick One While He’s Away’. Their seven-minute proto-rock opera is arguably the reason this film wasn’t seen for almost thirty years. With Keith Moon playing with a religious fervor, and arguably hitting the drums four times for every one that a normal drummer would, this is the electric highlight of the program, and it’s only the second song. The performance is near perfect but also feels natural, in part because of moments like the one where Townsend starts to windmill and knocks into one of Moon’s mics, then grins towards someone offstage after fixing it.

The Stones get the last half hour to themselves, but The Who’s dexterous time changes, hooky rhythms and three-way harmonies eclipse anything in the headliner’s tired performance. (And if this version of the song sounds familiar, it’s the one used in Rushmore, though not on the soundtrack album. This performance also showed up in The Who’s doc The Kids Are Alright.)

Other acts don’t live up to their billing. Even with Iommi standing in, Jethro Tull’s mimed act is all too obvious. Taj Mahal plays live, but should be a lot more magnetic than he is here. His voice has power, but he was forced to record before most of the audience had arrived and the performance looks lackluster next to The Who. And while Marianne Faithful is a gorgeous poster child for the late ’60s cokehead, you get the feeling she’s here as Jagger’s hot girlfriend rather than as a real addition to the lineup.

And then there’s Yoko, who…wails. It’s the scream of a million foreskins being snipped while the skulls of cancer-stricken children are ground into meal. I dare you to listen.

Prior to Yoko’s implosion of the entire sonic spectrum we can enjoy John Lennon’s one-time supergroup, The Dirty Mac, which does a fairly good version of the Beatles’ ‘Yer Blues’. You’d probably hope for more from Lennon, Clapton, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Keith Richards on bass, but the pure joy you don’t quite get from the band you might get from Mick Jagger’s introduction of Lennon, aka Winston Legthigh. The two look stoned off their balls and ready to make out. An unheralded improv comedy moment.

And then there’s the Stones. Beggar’s Banquet had been released only a few days before taping, and most of the set list was pulled from the album. (‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ is a notable exception, as it had just been recorded a month before and wouldn’t be released for another year, on Let It Bleed.) The audience clearly digs ‘Sympathy For the Devil’, recorded six months earlier and released just the week before taping, but the band doesn’t quite seem to know how to end it. The crowd really loves the slow ‘No Expectations’ but seem perplexed by singalong ‘salt of the Earth’. If only they knew it would only be played live another five times in 40 years.

But the band just isn’t there. Watts and Wyman look about to fall over, Richards is game but muted, and Jagger’s moves seem entirely put on. He’s not as cynical as he seems during the first few songs in Shine A Light, but he does seem fairly desperate for it all to work. I enjoy him flubbing the timing of the opening to ‘You Can’t Always Get’, but am more distracted by his similarity there to a young Ewan McGregor.

There’s not even much to make of Brian Jones, who looks just as tired as everyone else, if possibly a little more drugged. Mick and Keith look wasted as they introduce artists elsewhere in the special, but whether they had time enough to come down before performing or if they manage not to look wasted, the end result is the same. Jones seems like he could nod off at any point, and his lack of magic with maracas during ‘Sympathy’ underscores the alienation we saw in Jean-Luc Godard’s movie.  

It would all be so much more appropriate if they’d played ‘Jigsaw Puzzle’:

Oh the singer, he looks angry / At being thrown to the lions / And the bass player, he looks nervous / About the girls outside / And the drummer, he was shattered / Trying to keep up time / And the guitar players look damaged /They’ve been outcasts all their lives

Even though I usually want to nod off with Jones during the Stones’ portion of the show, I’ve got affection for their wan performance. It’s that ‘outcasts’ link from the lyrics above. At their best the band set a standard that was irresistible to millions of people; here they’re just a bunch of outsiders trying to build their own little world. They’ve corralled their own people and dressed them in colored robes in the hopes of demonstrating that rock and roll, that force that for better or worse rallied under ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, was no different from the tame circus acts slotted in between these rock bands.

I could sum this up with a florid music writer’s statement, something like “but this Circus proves that when would-be gods like the Rolling Stones bring the audience into their world, the magic breaks,” but it would be total bullshit. There are bad shows and good ones. Sometimes it’s the bad ones that have cameras rolling, and that’s all this is. But like any other good film document, Rock and Roll Circus is also a snapshot of history. If that’s not enough, go watch ‘A Quick One’ again while we prepare for Altamont…