Old Stones doc­u­men­tary shines a light on an un­savoury era

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - Brian Boyd on mu­sic

Martin Scors­ese’s Shine a Light at­tempts to do just that on the ca­reer of The Rolling Stones. His doc­u­men­tary is pri­mar­ily per­for­mance-based, so not much new is re­vealed about the Stones. The last time the band al­lowed a film-maker full creative ac­cess to what re­ally hap­pens in the Stones camp, they brought said di­rec­tor to court and ef­fec­tively buried the film.

In 1972, a high-wa­ter­mark in their de­bauch­ery an­nals, the Stones em­barked on a mam­moth North Amer­i­can tour to pro­mote their Ex­ile on Main Street album. They en­listed Robert Frank, a well-re­garded pho­tog­ra­pher and film di­rec­tor, to over­see the film and were keen on it be­ing a real cin­ema vérité af­fair. The end re­sult was sup­posed to be the rock­u­drama to beat all rock­u­dra­mas.

At the first screen­ing of the quaintly ti­tled Cock­sucker Blues, Jag­ger turned to Frank at the end. “It’s fuck­ing good Robert,” he said, “but if it’s shown, we’ll never be let into the US again.” Doubt­less un­der pres­sure from their fi­nan­cial peo­ple, the Stones sued Frank to pre­vent the film’s re­lease.

The court case was bizarre. The Stones claimed they owned Cock­sucker Blues be­cause they had paid for it; Frank ar­gued he owned it be­cause he had made it. The judge handed down a curious ver­dict: the film could only be screened if Frank him­self was present. The judge’s think­ing was never fully ex­plained, but the Stones were happy be­cause Frank lived as a vir­tual recluse in Nova Sco­tia, so the rul­ing ef­fec­tively meant the film would be banned. Cock­sucker Blues has been screened a few times, mainly at film fes­ti­vals, and it’s easy to come across a boot­leg ver­sion (of not very good qual­ity) if you know the right peo­ple. Once viewed, it’s ob­vi­ous why the Stones went to court over it – the film is both a self-in­dul­gent yawn­fest and a riv­et­ing look at trans­gres­sive rock star be­hav­iour.

There are rel­a­tively stan­dard shots of peo­ple snort­ing coke and shoot­ing up heroin. There’s some weird footage of Jag­ger, a hand and a pair of trousers. There’s in­tense hu­mour in watch­ing a stoned Keith Richards try­ing to make a phone call. Best of all, there’s the oblig­a­tory throw-the-TV-offthe-ho­tel-bal­cony shot. (In­ter­est­ingly, Richards does first check to see that no one is be­low).

Much of the film’s no­to­ri­ety comes from one scene show­ing road­ies hav­ing sex with groupies. It’s a pa­thetic scene that speaks vol­umes about how degra­da­tion was of­ten con­fused with “fun” in those days. It also crudely ex­poses the re­al­ity of de­bauched rock’n’roll liv­ing. The scene, as with count­less oth­ers in the film, of­fers a crass and un­savoury coun­ter­point to the gen­er­ally adu­la­tory footage.

The most in­ter­est­ing thing about the Stones’ re­ac­tion to Cock­sucker Blues is how they both de­lighted at be­ing por­trayed as such rock’n’roll vagabonds and yet were pet­ri­fied that the film would dam­age their ca­reer. But, for all the band’s am­bi­gu­ity about the film, and in­deed the film’s am­bigu­ous por­trayal about life on the road with a “glam­orous” rock band, there is a good rea­son why the judge’s le­gal rul­ing should be over­turned.

You would hes­i­tate to use the word “ed­u­ca­tional” about any film with the word “cock­sucker” in its ti­tle, but at a time when the me­dia vir­tu­ally fetishise this type of be­hav­iour from to­day’s tabloid head­line grab­bers, Cock­sucker Blues, in­ten­tion­ally or not, makes some strik­ing and in­for­ma­tive ob­ser­va­tions.

The di­rec­tor Jim Jar­musch summed it up per­fectly when he called Cock­sucker Blues “def­i­nitely one of the best movies about rock’n’roll I’ve ever seen. It makes you think that be­ing a rock’n’roll star is one of the last things you’d ever want to be.”


Jag­ger: “We’ll never be let into the US again”

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