When the Rolling Stones returned to the U.S. for a 1972 tour, they let photographer Robert Frank bring a crew of film cameras along for the ride with the intention of releasing an honest, behind-the-scenes look at a big band's life on the road. The final cut was a bit more raw than the band had bargained for, though: When Mick Jagger and Co. watched Cocksucker Blues they decided they never wanted anyone else to see it. Frank won a 1977 court ruling that permits him to screen the film four times a year in an "archival situation" where he must be present.
"Look to your left, look to your right," Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Jeff Rosenheim said Saturday when he introduced one of these rare events in New York as part of the museum's Robert Frank Film Series. "One of you might be Robert Frank." (Frank never did make himself known.)
As fans filed into the museum's theater, Exile on Main Street's boozy "Casino Boogie" played on the house stereo, and Rosenheim speculated from a podium as to why the Stones tried to ban the film. His theory: they weren't worried about being allowed back into the States as Jagger told the director, but disliked the film because it took fans behind the curtain, revealing the depression and loneliness behind the glamour of the road.
After displaying blown-up slides of the Exile on Main Street cover art (also shot by Frank), Rosenheim warned, "I hope you are all ready for misogyny, boredom and ecstasy — stupor and exhaustion." And with that, the film began.
Early scenes depict the band in a dingy rehearsal space, jamming on "You Can't Always Get What You Want." The black-and-white camera shows a table of leftover cocaine lines and hangs on Charlie Watts, whose eyes are intense as he pounds away on his kit while a rail-thin Mick Jagger shouts the last few choruses in his direction.
The documentary portrayed the tour as tumultuous. A shirtless (and toothless) Richards plays a boogie-woogie piano vamp with track marks covering his left arm. Bill Wyman looks a zombie in his appearance on the Dick Cavett Show.
In an infamous scene, a roadie has sex with a reluctant-looking groupie on a plane while the band bangs on percussion instruments. The Met audience collectively gasped once, at a scene where a young groupie sits on a hotel room bed and injects her arm with heroin.
Still the musical performances were electrifying though gritty, the camera sound natural and unmixed. The band duets with Stevie Wonder on a Motown-style medley of "Uptight" and "Satisfaction." Between songs, a John Belushi-sized horn player takes a swig from a whiskey bottle and spins back to his mic.
Mark Halperin, a 59-year-old fan, said he saw the Stones on the same tour when he was in college and sees the film as an early predictor of reality TV. "Everyone was trying to be outrageous as possible," he said, "as long as there's a camera in your face."