Old Stones documentary shines a light on an unsavoury era
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”