The Rolling Stones' forbidden documentary

"Exile on Main St.'s" rerelease is revelatory, but even better is the concert film quashed for four decades

Published May 22, 2010 6:01PM (EDT)

Mick Jagger in San Francisco in 1972
Mick Jagger in San Francisco in 1972

The remastered sound of the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main St.," reissued this week to much carefully orchestrated fanfare, brings the decadent double album out of the dank basement and out into the light. The clatter of Charlie Watts' sticks on the rim of his drum kit rings out like horse's hooves on "Hip Shake," and Mick Jagger's voice rises out of the famously murky mix on "Torn and Frayed."

But "Exile's" sonic polish is small potatoes compared to what awaits on the DVD available only with the album's "super deluxe" (and super expensive) edition. Sandwiched in between excerpts from Steven Kijak's making-of documentary, which screened at Cannes this week, and a pair of clips from Hal Ashby's concert doc, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones," is 11 minutes from Robert Frank's legendary and elusive "Cocksucker Blues," the quasi-documentary that the Stones have effectively suppressed for nearly four decades. Owing to ongoing legal difficulties, the rest of "Cocksucker Blues" is unlikely to see legitimate release, but many of those who've seen it regard it as one of the greatest rock movies ever made.

The Stones hired Frank, the still photographer best known for the stark monograph "The Americans," to document the run-up to "Exile's" 1972 release and the accompanying tour, the band's first U.S. jaunt since their disastrous free concert at Altamont Speedway, a would-be Woodstock where a man was fatally stabbed in the middle of "Under My Thumb." After holing up in the basement of Richards' chateau in the south of France, where much of "Exile" was recorded, they were ready to meet their American public again, and they wanted Frank along for the ride.

It's hard to know what the Stones expected from Frank, whose previous films, including the Beat landmark "Pull My Daisy" (1959), showed little interest in conventional narrative of either the fiction or nonfiction variety. (At one point, Frank theorized he was chosen because his friend Danny Seymour, who appears in the film, was adept at procuring hard drugs, which made him a valuable commodity in the Stones' circle.) In any case, the Stones didn't like what they saw -- or at the very least considered it unwise to release. According to one account, Jagger told Frank he liked the film but worried that "if it shows in America, we'll never be allowed in the country again." The band successfully sued to prevent the release of "Cocksucker Blues," with showings limited to those at which Frank was physically present (a requirement that has been slightly loosened in recent years as the 85-year-old Frank's ability to travel has been curtailed). Video was verboten as well, of course, although VHS bootlegs and now Internet downloads have always been within the reach of the curious and determined. It's also made appearances on various streaming video sites, although its tenure is inevitably short-lived.

"Cocksucker Blues" is infamous for its scenes of debauchery, like an incipient orgy on the Stones' private plane where women shriek as their shirts are pulled off and Jagger and Richards bang instruments like a satanic house band. (Carefully edited snippets appear on the "Exile" DVD, although the Glimmer Twins now seem to preside over a mild outbreak of tickle fighting.) But such spectacles would hardly have damaged the reputation of a band whose image was based in excess. And besides, the Stones are absent for many of the movie's most notorious scenes, including those in which unidentified hangers-on stick needles in their arm and a sperm-spattered naked woman sprawls on a hotel bed and fingers her crotch in postcoital reverie.

What was perhaps more damaging -- and, to the outside observer, most intriguing -- is just how dull the life of the world's biggest rock 'n' roll band could be. At times, Frank goes out of his way to portray the drudgery of life on the road, as when he intercuts footage of a couple shooting up in a hotel room with scenes of Keith Richards quietly playing cards. In one sublime sequence, included on the "Exile" DVD, a lugubrious Richards makes a slurred and unsuccessful attempt to order a bowl of fruit from a woman in a Southern hotel.

KEITH RICHARDS: Do you have any fresh fruit?

ROOM SERVICE: Well, like strawberries or blueberries?

KR: Strawberries and blueberries.

RS: How many orders?

KR: Would you send up, like, a bowl?

RS: Oh, no. It goes by the order.

KR: That's very comp … Why don't you just make a nice selection of fruit and send it up. You know, use your own discretion.

RS: Well, look, you've got two melon. Will I send you one order of strawberries and one order of blueberries, then?

KR: Have you got a … What about an apple?

RS: Apple? Well, I can get you an apple, yes.

KR: Can you get us, like, three apples?

RS: [Pause] Just a minute, please.

There's concert footage as well, much of it astonishing; many fans regard the 1972 tour as the Stones' finest hour. It's a shame the "Exile" DVD only shows us the second half of their duet with Stevie Wonder, who toured as their opening act, picking up with "Satisfaction" but omitting the segue out of Wonder's "Uptight (Everything's Alright)." But the vividly colored stage performances only heighten the dolorous feel of the black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage. In his novel "Underworld," whose third section is named for the film, Don DeLillo described it thus: "The camera phalanx in the tunnels. People sitting around, two people asleep in a lump or tripped out or they could be unnoticeably dead, the endless noisy boredom of the tour -- tunnels and runways."

The torpid tenor of "Cocksucker Blues" is in marked contrast to the antic frenzy of "Charlie Is My Darling," Peter Whitehead's documentary of the Stones' 1965 Irish tour, which has also never been released on video in its entirety. "Charlie," which turns up on YouTube from time to time, is a far more lighthearted affair, somewhere between the Beatlemaniac antics of "A Hard Day's Night" and the arm's-length vérité of Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroiter's "Lonely Boy," their sociological portrait of a young Paul Anka. Scoring his footage with marching-band arrangements of the Stones' greatest hits, Whitehead's tone is gently mocking but also genuinely fascinated, particularly by the band's cross-generational appeal. Eager grannies and self-serious undergrads turn out to see them as well as frenzied teenagers, whose fervor sometimes puts them in physical jeopardy. The film shows fans rushing the stage and jumping on various band members, and one unlucky woman being carried out on a stretcher.

Given that "Charlie" has been released on DVD, but with all the songs edited out, the likely culprit for its unavailability is the thorny subject of music rights, the same factor that kept Robert Altman's "California Split" and Monte Hellman's "Two-Lane Blacktop" off the shelf for years. But by the time of "Cocksucker Blues," the Stones owned everything with their name on it, including their songs and the film itself. The quality of the excerpts on the "Exile" DVD obliterates the equivalent sequences in bootleg copies, suggesting that a decent print and a digital transfer of at least sections of it are somewhere in the vaults. It's unlikely, almost unthinkable, that the entire movie will ever see proper release, and perhaps that's as it should be. "Cocksucker Blues" makes sense as samizdat, a blurry, blue-tinged artifact passed from one person to the next, surfacing briefly on one website or other but always being taken down, shoved back underground. But then, as Jagger sings on "Exile's" first song, "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me."

By Sam Adams

Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter at SamuelAAdams or at his blog, Breaking the Line.


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