Playing the role of rock and roll's Lucifer is a tough act to uphold. And even tougher to chronicle, but that's what noted documentarian Robert Frank did when he was hired twenty-six years ago to film Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones' 1972 North American tour supporting their seminal Exile on Main Street album. After viewing Frank's completed work, Jagger is said to have admitted, "It's a beautiful film, Robert, but if it ever shows in America, we'll never be allowed there again."
The Stones quickly forbade the film from being released, both for the obvious reasons of the off-stage excesses it recorded, but also for the monotony, loneliness and tedium of their life on the road it so accurately captured. Frank fought the Stones' decision, and after a protracted legal battle, a judge ruled that the film could only be shown when the director himself was in attendance.
Showing in San Francisco for the first time in fifteen years at the Castro Theater as part of the city's Forty-First Annual International Film Festival, the documentary started with a disclaimer that read in part, "Except for the musical sequences, the events portrayed in this film are entirely fictional. No resemblance to actual people is intended." Regardless of that statement's verity, the current jocular incarnation of the Stones would probably do well to allow this film to finally be released, if only to remind people that onceuponatime, they really were a dangerous band.
That element of danger certainly surrounded the band in 1972, and onstage and on vinyl they played it to the hilt to a public starving for a sound that epitomized the darkness of the time. Only three years had passed since the Altamont debacle, band members had been arrested five times since they'd first entered the public eye, and they'd just released the murky and mysterious Exile. The time was ripe for a film to catapult their dark legend even higher.
By giving nearly everyone that traveled with the band a camera, Frank successfully insured that he'd get some candid material. The ultimate irony of that technique, however, is that while everyone had a camera, there was really very little to film. In one scene, for example, Mick, Bianca Jagger, and a soundman film each other simply standing in a hallway, too bored or stoned to do anything more.
Frank's mixing of grainy black-and-white footage with Super-8 color makes it impossible to tell what time it is at any point in the film. The light is always the gray that could be dusk or dawn, and the band's sobriety is no sure measure of the time of day. The result is a feeling of timelessness, of being trapped in the malaise of purgatory including the continual waiting game between shows, played out in hotel rooms, planes and concrete-walled dressing rooms.
Of course, some gems are caught using this all-angles technique. In the ultimate self-centered gesture, Mick films himself masturbating, Keith throws a television off a hotel balcony (an act that earns him a "TV Repairman #1" credit at the end of the film) and members of the Stones' entourage engage in a mad go-round with a handful of groupies at 30,000 feet while Mick and Keith provide a percussive soundtrack to the bacchanalia.
Aside from these moments and a few rehearsal scenes, the band seems genuinely ill at ease anywhere but on stage. Long shots of Mick staring out windows while coverage of the 1972 Democratic convention drones on in the background, Keith and his crew killing time with a poker game or sitting silent while dope deals are arranged embody the torpor that plagues the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band offstage.
Cocksucker Blues is different from most rock and roll documentaries in that only a handful of songs are shown, the highlight of which is a version of "Satisfaction" with Stevie Wonder joining the Glimmer Twins. The film doesn't strive to be a complete documentary of the tour, either. The incident in Boston in which the band didn't start playing until after midnight because Mick and Keith had been arrested in Rhode Island on charges of assaulting a photographer is left on the cutting room floor.
The film earns its place in the pantheon of great music documentaries, however, because it reveals -- in a manner perhaps too candid for the Stones to deal with -- a band in their absolute musical prime struggling with their onstage personas outside the glare of the spotlight. Sympathy for the devil? Forget it. Cocksucker Blues triggers an altogether different level of empathy for Jagger and Co.-- pity.