Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones

Ladies, gentlemen, Rolling Stones, movie, concert, 1974
Courtesy Photo
Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones film poster from 1974.
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New York — A year and a half after the fact, one of the two films about the Rolling Stones American tour is out. Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones opened on Easter Sunday at the Ziegfield Theatre in New York City. Not a movie in the traditional sense, the film is being touted as a new concept in cinema, a concert in and of itself. Tickets must be purchased in advance for engagements that vary in length in each city, depending on the theaters. A special sound crew is brought in, and with them come special quadraphonic speakers capable of reaching 100 honest decibels without distorting.

If the New York opening went the way co-producer/director Roland Binzer said it would (this issue goes to press four days before the Easter Sunday send-off), then 100,000 people gathered to celebrate the event: Two city blocks around the theater were cordoned off and turned into one roaring extravaganza; a 40-foot-high Rolling Stones winged tongue rose into the sky just as the movie was beginning for the chosen few inside the theater and 2000 white doves were released to shed their blessings upon the inhabitants of New York; a 65-foot-long dragon, flown from San Francisco, wound its way through the streets while the ticketless multitudes mingled with the ticketed guests buying bread and fruit from glittered 20-foot-high stands disguised as milk bottles, watermelons and coffeepots . . . If it was the way Binzer said it was going to be . . .

Binzer, it should be noted, has an advertising background, possesses a closet full of awards for TV spots and short films, is the originator of the Screaming Yellow Zonkers campaign and the purveyor of such products as Wrigley's Spearmint Gum and Ovaltine. If it was the way Binzer said it was going to be on Easter Sunday, then there were "bands, fire-eaters, guys balancing lawn mowers on their chins . . . policemen with eggs on their heads and white plumes in the bridles of their horses . . . 20-foot-high dragon faces with singers and dancers stepping through the gaping mouths, music from the White Magnolia Creole Band from New Orleans . . ." The festivities were to begin at 7 PM, and as the scheduled curtain time of 9 PM approached, there was a procession of "strangely dressed motor-driven vehicles — Cadillacs upholstered on the outside with plushy soft pink satin . . . limousines lined with ostrich feathers . . . tarred and feathered cars, and one very special auto festooned with rubber ducks." If Mick Jagger came — and it looked pretty certain that Mick Jagger would come — he wanted to be in the car with the rubber ducks.

No one explained why.

As the curtain rose inside the Ziegfield — if all went well — there were 1000 lucky revelers, 600 of them picked from among the 50,000 people who sent postcards to New York's WNEW-FM requesting tickets. The other 400 were people who worked on the film and the outside extravaganza, rock critics (more than film critics, since the film is being promoted as a unique Seventies version of a concert), and assorted celebrities, including the mayor of New York. "Abe Beame called us specially to ask if he could come," said Binzer, who estimated the cost of the Easter Sunday premiere at between $150,000 and $200,000.

Financing the extravaganza is a company called Dragonaire, a subsidiary of Seaboard Corporation and formed by Seaboard executive Miles Spector to distribute the Stones' film. According to Marshall Chess, president of Rolling Stones Records, which bankrolled the film, Spector purchased distribution rights to the property. "It's his film," Chess said. The Stones collect a royalty from the proceeds of the tour.

Dragonaire rents a local theater at a flat rate — no percentage is paid to the house — and tickets, costing no more than $5 apiece, will be sold through ticket agencies, not at the box office. Each touring unit (the print of the film, the customized projector, the four special speakers, the necessary scaffolding, and the special curtain) costs Dragonaire $42,000, according to Chess. The film tour will start with five units (after New York they will open in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta) and when or if they make their money back, they will move into smaller cities.

Actually Ladies and Gentlemen didn't start out to be a feature-length film at all. Originally it was going to be part of a documentary that photographers Robert Frank and Danny Seymour were to make of the entire American tour. Frank and Seymour, who shot behind-the-scenes material with hand-held cameras, didn't care for big crews and fancy equipment, so when it came to shooting the performances, they contacted Bob Fries and Steve Gebhardt, producers of the ABC-TV special One To One, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono; they also made a documentary of the 1971 John Sinclair benefit called Ten For Two, an event organized by the Lennon-Onos to protest Sinclair's ten-year prison sentence for possession of two joints of marijuana. (That film is being held up, reportedly because Sinclair and Ono are fighting over whether the money should go to the Black Panthers or the New York Feminists.) Gebhardt and Fries had also done several shorts for John and Yoko, including Imagine and Fly, which was filmed in Danny Seymour's loft. Which is why Danny Seymour knew about Fries and Gebhardt and how they got the job of shooting the Stones' tour performances.

Gebhardt and Fries, on a $30,000 budget, shot 60,000 feet of film at two concerts for the Fort Worth/Dallas area and two concerts in Houston. The two filmmakers, plus a four-man camera crew, shot in 16mm film, mostly from the back of the halls using a 600mm lens powerful enough to pull in full close-ups. This footage eventually became Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones and the Seymour-Frank footage was excluded.

The Seymour-Frank behind-the-scenes material had problems — problems that precluded the use of this documentary material in Ladies and Gentlemen. On the Stones' tour, some members of the press, notably Truman Capote, noted that Frank's camera had caught people passing around plates of pills, and that there were shots of a member of the entourage locked in carnal tandem with a female high-school reporter on a less-than-private section of the Stones' private plane. Marshall Chess allowed as how "there were scenes of people on the crew fucking. Well, a crew member may have a wife. That came up. We're waiting for some releases. There hasn't been any resolution yet." The Seymour-Frank film is finished, Chess said, and one needs "technical work — re-mixing the music." He said it may be out within a year.

The rumors as to the raunchy nature of sections of the offstage film footage were heatedly denied by a close friend of Frank who says there is nothing scandalous about the film, that it is a loving portrait of the Stones, and that it is a work of art and not a commercial venture.

According to Chess, Danny Seymour bought a ketch and sailed off to the Caribbean after the film was shot. No one has heard from him, his boat turned up stolen, and he is missing, presumed dead. Frank retreated into the hinterlands of Nova Scotia, where he refuses to take phone calls.

Ladies and Gentlemen, composed entirely of Gebhardt-Fries performance footage, was originally edited by the filmmakers. Marshall Chess, apparently dissatisfied with the results, brought in Roland Binzer, who, with Gebhardt, re-edited the film. At this point, Chess said, Binzer and Gebhardt came up with the concert concept, and the Seymour-Frank material was excluded.

"Binzer was the major force," said Chess. "He figured out the rhythm that made it work." According to Gebhardt, "We re-did the whole film in an optical lab. We practically re-made the picture frame by frame. We spent a whole summer correcting almost every tenth frame and jockeying around with the 16mm print to make it look like it was shot 35mm for the wide screen."

There seems to have been some communication breakdown between Binzer and Gebhardt as to who was officially "director" of the film. In the final credits, Binzer, Chess, Fries and Gebhardt are all credited with being producers; Chess is called "executive producer"; Binzer, "director"; Fries,"director of sound production" and Gebhardt, "director of visual production and director of photography." Said Gebhardt: "We got into a coke- and grass-induced hard-nosed coin-flip to settle the credits . . . it was as good a way as any to resolve the irresolvables." Binzer confirmed the deciding coin-flip.

Bob Fries and Keith Richards worked on the sound for four months, first at Twickenham Studios in England and later at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. They used a process called "foxholing" which was developed by Twentieth Century Fox for The Robe in 1953, the first stereo movie. Instead of a few wide-sprocket holes and a single sound track for each image frame, there are numerous narrow holes and four separate sound tracks per image in a foxholed film. The method requires a special projector, but it gives a true quad sound, which Binzer and Gebhardt claim is a first in movies. "There's never been a better live sound track in a concert film," said Gebhardt.

At an advance screening of Ladies and Gentlemen two months before the Easter preview, the film ran about 90 minutes, and the Stones did 15 numbers in the exact sequence used in all the concerts on the American tour: "Brown Sugar," "Bitch," "Gimme Shelter," "Dead Flowers," "Happy," "Tumbling Dice," "Love In Vain," "Sweet Virginia," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "All Down the Line," "Midnight Rambler," "Bye Bye Johnny," "Rip This Joint," "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man."

At the beginning of the film, the screen is blank for 20 full minutes while the quad speakers pump out the sound of an audience filing into a concert hall. Then stage manager Chip Monck's voice comes on to say, "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones." The audience — it sounds like people in the theater, but actually it is the sound of the Fort Worth audience mixed with the Houston crowd — goes wild, and the show begins. The sound is both good and loud, the shots get so close that Mick Taylor's thumbs sometimes look like three-foot-high fence posts. The editing is fluid and non-obtrusive. It is the music that stars in the film. After the concert is over, Chip Monck's voice asks everyone to clear out and not hang around the concert hall, but if you stick around, you can hear a Spitfire airplane taking off in quad while the picture goes back to being blank, the way it started.

"We just wanted to slowly turn it on and slowly turn it off," said Gebhardt. "And rev it up all the way in the middle. Nobody really knows it yet, but this is the first really good rock-concert film. There's no message to it. It's just what it says it is: the Rolling Stones in concert. Period."

This is a story from the May 9, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 160: May 9, 1974
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