Just as there seems to be a rule that every great filmmaker at some point must make a movie about making movies, there also appears to be an unwritten law that their career is not over until they make a Rolling Stones documentary. Actually there's little support for the latter claim. It's just that there are so many concert films and other non-fiction works involving the band, and a good amount were made by notable directors, including Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby and Jean-Luc Godard. And another is currently being made by Johnny Depp, though it will primarily focus on Keith Richards.
With the most recent Stones film, Stones in Exile, hitting DVD recently, I thought I'd take a look at a few other related works, namely Albert and David Maysles' infamous classic Gimme Shelter and Robert Frank's little-seen, officially unreleased C**ksucker Blues. These two documentaries, neither necessarily concert films, both qualifying as examples of "Direct Cinema," form bookends to what you'll see in Stones in Exile, which is the latest from Stephen Kijak (Cinemania; Scott Walker: 30 Century Man) and which presents a history of the making of the band's masterpiece album "Exile on Main Street."
It would be fitting to also include Rollin Binzer's Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones in this Rolling Stones marathon, but I haven't yet managed to see it. Even though Frank's film is all but banned, it's easier to see that on the Internet than it is to see Binzer's film in any form until it finally hits DVD and Blu-ray this November. For now, the trio I present here is an adequate look at the Stones' American tours in '69 and '72 and a little of what they did in between. There are a couple years in there not documented in the following films, but few bands, or other famous figures, have such an overflowing time capsule for a specific era as this.
The Classic: Gimme Shelter (Maysles, 1970)
Would Gimme Shelter be a classic without its infamous footage of an armed concertgoer being lethally stabbed by a Hell's Angel in the crowd? It probably wouldn't be as well-known, and maybe the Maysles brothers wouldn't have been as big names afterward, but there's no doubt it would still be one of the best concert and/or tour films ever made. The Maysles were two of the best documentarians of their kind, and their chronicle of the tour leading up to the Altamont Free Concert, as well as the stuff at the Speedway prior to the tragedy, is filled with plenty of deliciously candid moments and fabulous performances from the Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, Jefferson Airplane and Flying Burrito Brothers.
To be honest, the fact that it ends so abruptly after spotlighting the murder kind of takes away from the film for me. It's a shocking and dramatic climax to a show consistently interrupted by fights in the audience, and it certainly is the highlight of the documentary, but I would have preferred to see more of the concert following this climax, especially given that the Stones continued to play after the incident in order to keep the crowd from getting even more unruly. As it concludes, the film ends up seeming and nearly being just a lead-up to that moment, but it's really much more than that.
Except for the fact that a news report on the death(s) at Altamont is heard near the beginning of the film in one of the many intercut "present day" bits showing the band members watching footage after the fact, for a while Gimme Shelter plays out as merely a mix of tour document and behind-the-scenes dealings concerning the plans for the Altamont show. Which is exactly how everyone involved would have understood it to be along the way. It's therefore somewhat less "direct" cinema for having a framing device and foretelling of the disaster that Altamont will end up being.
What I love about the film otherwise is the dichotomy of the band just playing their shows while the businessmen take care of the off-stage stuff. I also enjoy all the scenes in the crowd at Altamont with the groupies and the announcements of babies being born and activists handing out information on the Black Panthers. It's the same kind of in-the-moment captures I relish with similar festival concert docs like Monterey Popand Woodstock, which reveal an historical time and place and people to those of us born many years later.
You can watch the entire Gimme Shelter free online (though it's best seen on a big screen) courtesy of Google Video.
The Rarity: C**ksucker Blues (Frank, 1972)
There is some of that regular-folk stuff in C**ksucker Blues, a film that documents the Stones first return to the States for a tour since the Altamont tragedy, but even more so than Gimme Shelter the real reason to seek out this contraband film is to witness the infamous and controversial sequences. There's no murder to be found here, but there is a lot of drug use and hardcore sex, some masturbatory and some involving intercourse. Because Frank is allowed access -- though it's later somewhat negated by the refusal of a release for the film -- his documentary captures more of the literal "sex, drugs and rock n roll" of that lifestyle. Ironically, it all looks kind of boring, as the film presents the backstage and on-the-road (and in-the-air) life of The Rolling Stones as just a series of waiting periods between gigs. Shooting of heroin and (staged) orgies are simply leisure activities as monotonous as card playing and billiards.
I was likely disappointed in part because of the quality of the bootleg I watched on YouTube. Unfortunately the only other way to see C**ksucker Blues is to attend one of the obviously always-sold-out annual screenings which Frank is legally obligated to attend. I do wonder what will happen when the 85-year-old filmmaker and photographer (he did the "Exile in Main Street" album cover) dies and can no longer obey this court order. I also wonder how long it will take before the film is deemed okay for release. It was originally ruled unreleasable because of how it depicted the Stones, reportedly due to how it might affect their ability to travel to and in the U.S. But it's been a very long time, and I think the band can be forgiven for what they're seen doing in the film. Besides, they could also continue claiming, as an opening title does, that C**ksucker Blues is a work of fiction, with only the concert footage being considered "documentary."
C**ksucker Blues is currently available in parts on YouTube courtesy of different users. I won't link to them because they're technically illegal bootlegs, but you should be able to find them easily.
The New Release: Stones in Exile (Kijak, 2010)
Were there voice-over narration telling its story rather than having numerous band members, family members and producers giving their oral histories, this would kind of just be a Behind the Music episode about the making of "Exile on Main Street." Thankfully it's not so formal, though it's also not quite as interesting as it sounds. Maybe it's just that compared to something like C**ksucker Blues its told-rather-than-shown stories of the rock n roll lifestyle has a lot of "you shoulda been there" context. Still, as a bridging between those two more shocking and off-the-cuff documents, it is a decent piece of retrospective storytelling. Especially given the contradictory sorts of accounts from people like Don Was, who claims it was a time in which everyone was putting the '60s behind them, and engineer/producer Andy Johns, who makes it seem like it was still the same magic era.
Where are all the music critics and historians, though? Frankly, "Exile in Main Street" is not my favorite Stones album, though I can appreciate the story behind its recording. Yet I would like to hear more from the music experts as to why it's such a "masterpiece." Not that I dismiss the claims, but as there are modern testimonials from celebrities like Scorsese, Benicio del Toro, Will.i.Am and Jack White (the IMDb also credits Liz Phair, but I don't recall her being in it) about their love for the album, I don't see why there isn't also some other academically authoritative voices. And at only 63 minutes, it's not as if the film was running too long. As it stands, while Gimme Shelter is a must for all cineastes and C**ksucker Blues is a must for all fans of rock n roll, Stones in Exile is for the most part just something for die-hard Stones fans, and maybe not even all of them/us.
Stones in Exile is now available on DVD and streaming through Netflix's Watch Instantly service.