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Mick Jagger: On the Challenge of Live Performance and the Problem With Film Directors

With the release of the Rolling Stones' new Martin Scorcese-directed rock doc, Jagger talks about the old days

April 17, 2008
Rolling Stones Mick Jagger Isle Wight Festival
Mick Jagger performs at the Isle of Wight Festival on the Isle of Wight, England on June 10, 2007.
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

In your mind, what's the difference between the Stones we see in this movie versus the Stones in, say, 1972?
Much older [laughs]! I'm still singing the same old songs, you know. It's just a more matured style of playing, with maybe some of the more extravagant edges taken out. You know, the band — they were very inconsistent back then. They would do a fantastic show one night, fucking raise the roof and be amazing, and the next night they would do a terrible show, where the tempos are wildly wrong — too fast, too slow, terrible train wrecks and awful mistakes. Now it's a much more consistent-playing group.

Looking at old footage, you appear to be even more physically frenetic onstage now than in the old days. How can that be?
The problem for me is that you need a certain amount of physicality and oxygen and fitness just to sing. So if you use too much up dancing, you got nothing to sing with. I'll err on the side of the physicality, and I let the singing down. So I can't make the notes some nights. I've overdone the physicality.

How did you feel looking at the long, intense close-ups on you in the movie?
It was a little bit too much, I felt. But directors always like to use slow numbers to have these lingering shots. Yeah, I didn't care for it too much. Boring. It didn't look very good.

Your performance of "Far Away Eyes" is really campy and funny in the movie — it's a reminder of how much acting there can be in your singing.
All of these songs have characters. They're all different. That's the thing about the Stones, they have lots of other kind of facets which make them kind of interesting. They're not really stuck in classic-rock mode.

If you were forced to define that particular character . . .
Oh, God, don't force me [laughs]! Don't force me to intellectualize it. I just do the characters. I've done a couple of songs — even very early, on those songs like "Dear Doctor" and all that — they're that sort of character. I have an affinity with that country thing, I think.

Is it always a character in your songs?
Oh, no. Sometimes it's closer to your own persona. See, I don't know how this works for other singers. The thing about rock & roll is people expect it to be real, sincere and heartfelt, or something — it's not supposed to be manufactured. Pop music is allowed to be silly and saccharine, and nobody minds as long as they like the tune. Rock music's got its own set of conventions, but then you got to sort of break out of that because otherwise you're stuck in this thing, this one character.

Buddy Guy was really up in your face as you're playing blues harp, but you don't seem intimidated.
I'm not intimidated. I might have been when I was twenty. Well, not even then.

Is there anyone who could intimidate you onstage at this point?
No [laughs].

What are the first movies that you remember responding to as a kid?
My mum used to love musicals, so she'd take me to all these musicals, which is a form I never liked. She loved Doris Day. Judy Garland. So I had to be dragged to these movies.

I remember reading that you and Keith both liked Jazz on a Summer's Day, which was filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.
That was a big movie. That was the seminal movie for a lot of people, including filmmakers. We had a little chat about Jazz on a Summer's Day with Marty [Scorsese].

The thing about Jazz on a Summer's Day, it's very much one night. And it's got this very mellow feel, and you get these shots of the audience dancing, romantic and slightly tipsy. I think it's the first time I ever saw Chuck Berry perform. So I saw it several times just for that. It's so weird because he's kind of put down by the other musicians in the movie. Because he's not jazz, which is something we experienced a lot when we were starting out, being put down by jazz musicians.

What struck you about his actual performance?
I remember talking with Keith — I was amazed how big his hands were. You know, I was looking at my hands on the guitar, and, Jesus, it's so easy for him. I'm stretching, and he doesn't even bother. I was amazed at his fluidity.

I'll read another quote from you . . .
God, you've been digging around. Get off of fucking Google [laughs].

You said at some point in the Sixties, "We're not comedians, we're not going to make Beatles movies." What did you think about the Beatles' movies — A Hard Day's Night, Help!?
I just couldn't see the Rolling Stones doing anything like that. It did seem a bit too zany for my taste in movies. John was such a kind of serious person in a lot of ways. It was a little bit over the top, all the cuts and plots in the thing.

The Stones have made so many movies. Are you able to watch Gimme Shelter, for instance?
I don't listen to anything, I never listen to any of [the Rolling Stones'] records, and I never watch any of their movies. Let's get it out of the way. You know, I don't go home at night and put on Gimme Shelter, believe it.

Any chance you'll finally release Cocksucker Blues?
Yeah, I wouldn't mind releasing it. It's fine.

How do you see the film now?
That's a good movie. It didn't come out — but that's a classic. I wanted to make one kind of movie, but the director fucks you over because he doesn't want to do the movie he's agreed to make. I said, "You could make this dark movie, but you got to have these other up moments because being on tour is all about going onstage, you know?"

What you have for breakfast is fascinating, and what drugs you're taking and what birds you're shagging, that's all very lovely. But then for you, the going out onstage is the important part, and you have to include that. And [Robert Frank] wouldn't include it. So I got really mad at him, as we fired him. That's the problem you can get into with hiring directors.

For video from the Stones' cover shoot, their best live tracks, classic concert photos and more, visit rollingstone.com/therollingstones

This is a story from the April 17, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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