As fly-on-the-wall rock-doc experiences go, there are few more thrilling than the first 10 minutes of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film Sympathy for the Devil.
After the opening credits silently roll, we’re immediately transported to London’s Olympic Studios in the June of 1968, where the Rolling Stones are recording what will become Beggar’s Banquet. The band is in peak Byronic-dandy form, sporting an impressive array of colorful trousers and footwear (Bill Wyman’s hot pink boots take first prize), but it quickly becomes clear that these gentlemen aren’t merely flouncing around in their finery. They are here to get down to business.
There’s no self-conscious posing, no campy mugging for the cameras, no indication that the band is at all aware of being filmed. Guided by Mick Jagger’s acoustic strumming, Brian Jones and Keith Richards are lost in concentration as they follow along with the descending three-chord progression he’s brought to the session, slowly locking in together as the song begins to emerge. “Please let me introduce myself,” Mick softly sings, “I’m a man of wealth and taste …”
Yeah — it’s that song. Here we have the Stones, captured at perhaps the most crucial juncture of their first decade, as they prepare to emerge from a tumultuous year of drug busts, busted relationships and psychedelic cul-de-sacs with an album that will firmly re-establish them as the greatest rock & roll band in the world. Even better, we’re witnessing the creation of “Sympathy for the Devil,” a song that will become one of the most iconic entries in the Stones’ voluminous catalog. It’s a track that will forever define their dark reputation, and one which will be blamed for all manner of bad juju that befalls the band and their associates in years to come.
The ragged gents we see here are not rock gods dripping genius from every pore, but hard-working musicians slogging away together, taking a trial-and-error approach in their common quest of magic and inspiration. When Keith plugs his Les Paul “Black Beauty” into a small Vox amp, and his fingers find what will become one of the signature parts of the “Sympathy” guitar solo, his elation in that moment of discovery is wonderfully palpable — and for Stones fans, it’s an absolute thrill to see and hear him play that instantly-recognizable lick practically at its birth.
Then, before any goosebumps induced by that moment can even subside, the film suddenly whisks us out of the studio and into a London junkyard, where Black Panther-style revolutionaries read aloud from the works of Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver before gunning down a captive trio of white women.
Welcome, then, to Sympathy for the Devil, one of the most frustrating and fascinating rock films ever made. For an hour and 40 minutes, the film veers maddeningly between the most intimate footage of the Stones’ creative process ever filmed, and Jean-Luc Godard’s staged ruminations on revolution, creation and destruction. One moment, we’re watching Charlie Watts get in the groove behind his Gretsch drum kit, his suit jacket and tie elegantly draped over the studio baffle; the next, we’re watching actress Anne Wiazemsky, Godard’s wife, spray-painting portmanteaus like “Freudemocracy” and “Cinemarxist” upon cars and buildings. You get the band and their entourage (including Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull) gathering around a microphone to record the song’s immortal “Hoo Hoo!” backing chant. You also get small children are slapping the faces of white revolutionaries in a pornographic bookshop while the store’s proprietor reads aloud from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. In other words, you have what feels like a Stones documentary randomly spliced with scenes from a disjointed and inchoate sequel to Weekend, the French director’s acclaimed anti-bourgeoisie black comedy from 1967.
“I just wanted to show something in construction,” Godard himself told Rolling Stone in a 1969 interview. “To show that democracy was nowhere, not even constructive. Not destructive, of course, just saying: ‘We are against war’ but doing nothing for peace, not having the strength to follow the Black man who is going to be a revolutionary.”
The film met with decidedly mixed reviews upon its original release, and has often been subsequently cited as a particularly egregious and pretentious example of what Tom Wolfe called “radical chic” — the romanticization of revolutionary causes by rich white people who are motivated more by fashion than deeply-held beliefs. And yet, as the stunning new 4K restoration of Sympathy (being released October 5th on DVD, Blu-Ray and via digital streaming services in honor of the film’s 50th anniversary) reveals, the dramatic side of the film still has a loopy, near-hallucinatory period charm, even if it sometimes comes off as Godard self-parody. And despite the numerous interruptions by actors and set-pieces, the film’s importance as a Stones document cannot be understated.
“I hadn’t seen it again on a large screen until recently,” says Tony Richmond, Sympathy for the Devil‘s cinematographer, who supervised the color correction of the restored film. “And I have to say, I think it’s really fantastic. I think it was the first time that anyone had seen — or at least, that I’d seen — the process of a group making a record. You really see how they’re putting the music together.”
Indeed, it’s absolutely revelatory to watch the song evolve from a Dylan-esque talking blues to a fiery, Latin-tinged rock classic. But it’s also enthralling to see the individual Stones at work, and to observe the dynamics between them in the studio. Keith, the budding buccaneer, cheerfully absorbs the energy of the room and then channels it into funky, stabbing guitar parts. Mick, moody and impatient, becomes irritated with Charlie’s initial inability to come to grips with the song’s percussive opening. And despite the oft-repeated claims that Brian had become a ghostly shell of himself by the time of Beggar’s Banquet, he’s clearly quite involved in the “Sympathy” sessions. (Yes, he looks a little worse for wear here, but a year of being repeatedly busted for drug possession will do that to you.) While his personal issues — and the Glimmer Twin’s ironclad creative alliance — would eventually force him out of the band he’d founded, here Jones is still very much one of the gang.
“Being there at the time, I can honestly tell you that there was no contention between them at all,” attests Richmond, who had previously worked with the Stones on their video shoots for “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Child of the Moon.” “They all seemed pretty happy and friendly with each other. You can see it in the film — Brian and Keith are sharing cigarettes, throwing lighters to each other, like buddies …
“If there was any tiny bit of tension at all, it was when they were opening with the drums. Mick was getting a little frustrated with Charlie, but that’s all; it was nothing more than, ‘Aw, come on Charlie!’ And that wasn’t even tension, really. They were just trying to work it out.”
Godard, a pioneer of the French New Wave movement, originally wanted to build his film about rock and revolution around the Beatles, the biggest band in the world at the time. But when the Fab Four declined to participate, he approached the Stones, whose outlaw image was actually more apropos for his themes. Several years of persecution at the hands of the British police and courts had politicized Mick Jagger; on March 17th, 1968, he’d marched in the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at London’s Grosvenor Square and was inspired by the ensuing riot to write the lyrics for “Street Fighting Man,” another one of Beggar’s Banquet‘s standout tracks.
Despite their wayward reputation, Richmond recalls that the most difficult thing about filming the Stones was divining when they would actually show up for their recording sessions. “We would get there about six o’clock at night, seven o’clock at night,” he says, “but [the band] would come in at all sorts of times; they may not even come in until 11, you know, because it was an all-night session. But we always basically knew where each of the guys were gonna be that night, because Glyn Johns, the engineer, would be setting up the baffles and the mics. So we knew where Mick was gonna be, where Keith was gonna be, where Brian and Charlie were gonna be, and it was lit in such a way that we never had to touch anything between takes or disturb the Stones in any way…
“And then the guys would come in, and they’d get down to work, and we would shoot. We were very quiet, and we had a very, very small crew — just a guy pushing the dolly, a focus-puller, Jean-Luc and I, and everybody else was way in the background. We didn’t interrupt them, whatsoever; we were like voyeurs. It was fantastic.”
According to Richmond, the non-Stones portions of the film were far more challenging to shoot. Working without a script, Godard and the cinematographer shot everything in guerilla style, off-the-cuff and without permits. “There was no shooting script, whatsoever, which drove everybody crazy,” Richmond laughs. “We had four or five days in London shooting that stuff in the streets. I had a small hand-held camera; the focuser and I would get in the car with Jean-Luc and his wife, and the producer’s chauffeur would drive us around. All of a sudden, Jean-Luc would say, ‘Stop!’ And I’d get out there, kneel down, and Anna would run across the road and start spraying people’s cars and things! We had no permission — and that was real paint she was using! I can’t imagine why we didn’t get arrested.”
Increasingly frustrated by Godard’s improvisational approach — and by his refusal to speak to them in English — Michael Pearson and Iain Quarrier, the film’s co-producers, eventually wrested the film away from its director. In addition to renaming the movie after the Stones’ song (Godard had wanted to call it One Plus One), the producers dubbed the finished track of “Sympathy for the Devil” over the closing sequence of a Stones acoustic jam, which absolutely infuriated the filmmaker. “Godard’s ending was to have them sitting there strumming, working on a new song, instead of having the song overlaid,” Richmond explains. “The movie’s about art and destruction, and I believe Godard feels that art is never finished. But by playing that track over those images, it’s finished and complete.”
Things came to a head that fall, when Sympathy for the Devil premiered at the London Film Festival. Prior to the screening, Godard sent the theater into an uproar by announcing that he would be showing the uncut version of One Plus One outside in a nearby parking lot, and that patrons should return their tickets to the British Film Institute and send the refunds to the Eldridge Cleaver Defense Fund. When only 20 ticketholders took him up on the suggestion — “It was raining at the time, and no one wanted to go out” — the French director scolded those who remained in the audience. “You’re content to sit here like cretins in a church,” he railed. Quarrier then took the podium to explain why he’d film’s title and ending had been changed, whereupon Godard leapt across the stage and socked the producer on the jaw. “He knocked him over the back of the stage, which I thought was rather amazing,” says Richmond. “He made the movie he wanted, but he wasn’t allowed to show the movie he wanted. And that’s always worth punching a producer for, I think!”
“I was very disappointed with the Rolling Stones,” Godard complained to Rolling Stone in 1969. “They didn’t even say it was the wrong idea to add the completed version of their song on to the end of the film. I wrote to them and they didn’t say anything. It was very unfair for them to accept their being emphasized over all the others in the film. Each group of people is equal to the other, and one shouldn’t overemphasize the playing of the Stones by repeating them. If the film is distributed, it will have a new title, the title of their song — ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ — a producer’s idea. It’s unfair not from a personal point of view, but from a political point of view, unfair to the Black people.”
Godard may have felt let down by the Stones’ refusal to condemn the end result (or promote his personal cut, which would eventually be distributed in Europe), but the band was otherwise preoccupied as 1968 drew to a close. Mick Jagger was busy filming Performance — and possibly having an on-set affair with co-star Anita Pallenberg, causing Keith Richards to fume with jealous rage. And preparations were already underway to organize and film The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, an all-star concert featuring the Stones, the Who, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull, Yoko Ono and the Dirty Mac — a one-off supergroup featuring John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. “You really do see some contention between [the Stones] during their four or five songs,” says Richmond, who served as the cinematographer for that shoot, and who also oversaw the color-correction for a restored version of Rock and Roll Circus that will be released later this year. “And you see Brian falling apart. It’s very sad.”
Which is why, ultimately, this semi-documentary/screed remains such an important historical piece of work. Despite the film’s flaws and annoyances, it nonetheless contains the last footage we have of the Brian Jones-era Stones lineup as a fully functioning unit. It’s also the last time we would ever be treated to such an unguarded view of the band; the trappings of fame, the pressures of stardom and the traumas of Brian’s death and the Stones’ disastrous Altamont concert would all soon take their toll. Mick would become increasingly protective of his own image, and Keith would withdraw into a cocoon of, as he would later sing, “booze and pills and powders.” Perhaps it was because the band trusted Godard and Richmond, or perhaps they were just too far into a creative groove to put up their guard, but the unvarnished realness of the film’s studio footage still resonates 50 years later. If you’ve ever fantasized about going back in time and sitting in on a Stones recording session, Sympathy for the Devil is still your ticket. You just may want to keep your hand on the remote while watching it.