It’s amazing what a difference a stripped-down “Honky-Tonk Women” makes.
There’s a lot to recommend about The Rolling Stones Olé Olé Olé!: A Trip Across Latin America, Paul Dugdale’s rock-doc-cum-tour-diary about the group’s jaunt through Central and South America earlier this year and that premiered last night at the Toronto Film Festival. Following Mick & Co. through 10 Latin American countries, it culminates in their historic first show ever in Cuba on March 25th; it would have taken place a few days earlier, were the gents not bumped by Barack Obama gracing the island with the first visit from a U.S. President in 80 years. (The nerve!) But there are two performance sequences here that make this a must-see for even casual Stones fans. And both scenes remind you — should you need reminding — that some five-plus decades after busting out Jimmy Reed covers at the Jazz Marquee Club, these venerable warhorses still have the power to make rock and roll feel religious.
The first couldn’t be simpler. As Dugdale catches Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reminiscing about old times and, ahem, old conquests backstage in Brazil, he suddenly shifts to the two of them sitting on fold-out chairs, a guitar in Richards’ hands. They then launch into “Honky-Tonk Women,” or more specifically, the spare, Bakersfield-sound version known as “Country Honk” that’s on Let It Bleed. It’s just Mick, Keith, and an acoustic guitar. The director lets the song play out in full, in a single, static shot. And it’s spellbinding. Check out these two musicians casually playing, with decades of friendship and fist fights and bad blood and the sort of bonding that only brothers and platoon mates who’ve seen combat together have, and you see why these guys have stuck it out for so damned long. There’s something about this partnership in particular that creates a rock alchemy that’s singular and miraculous. It seems obvious, yeah, but given What We Talk About When We Talk About the Stones now, it’s the first thing you forget. You don’t see living legends, old gods almost dead or the masthead of a train-kept-a-rollin’ Stones Inc. organization. You just see two guys that love each other when they hit those harmonies on the chorus. “There’s no explanation for human chemistry,” Richards muses, “especially for two blokes coming out of Dartsford.”
The second part captures the band en toto tearing into “Satisfaction” for a crowd of hundreds of thousands of ecstatic Cuban fans, and again, it’s a performance that viewers get to experience start to finish. How many times has this band played this song live over the years? Watching them preach about about ridin’ around the world and tryin’ to make some girl, you realize you have to ask a different question: How many times have they played that song for this audience? The answer is none, and they know it, and their full-throttle take that’s fueled by the energy of a crowd who’s waited forever to hear this live proves they know it. This is not a band on auto-pilot, working through a song they could play in their sleep and over the years undoubtedly have. The way Richards rips through that riff and the rest of the band follows suit makes you hear it for the first time in a long time.
As for the rest of the movie, you get to tag along as the Stones rehearse in Los Angeles, as their management team try to organize the groundbreaking tour finale while intertitles count down to Operation: Cuba (“31 days”), as Richards waves to fans from a hotel room in Argentina like a benevolent blues-rock pope (not to be confused with the actual pope, who laid into the band for playing on Good Friday), as Jagger sits in a family drumming session in Brazil, and as Keef does an impromptu jig with a little girl dancing backstage. Even better, you get to meet the boys’ rabid Latin American fans like Argentina’s rollingas, who have created an underground culture around the group’s legacy. For them and others we meet, the Stones music isn’t something you hear in car commercials or SiriusXM classic-rock channels but a vital, rebellious force transmitted from outside the confines of dictatorships and censorship. For a long time, you could be arrested for owning Stones music in several of these places. The rush of being able to sing along to “Paint It Black” after so much suppression is palpable throughout the movie.
Of course, there’s no shortage of Stones docs in circulation: You can basically see the band in every single incarnation from scrappy blues travelers to elder statesmen, and courtesy of Martin Scorsese, we already have a peerless lions-in-winter portrait in Shine a Light. Thanks to Dugdale’s chronicle of this swing through Latin America, however, we get to see them be revolutionaries once last time. It’s only a tour diary, one that feels a bit too promotional for its own good at times, but we like it. When Keith Richards and Ron Wood walked out to introduce the film last night at the festival’s premiere, the going-apeshit response for the audience felt like a nice warm-up for the fervor to come onscreen. The duo surveyed the crowd for a second, laughing and smiling, before Richards stepped up to the microphone. “Olé olé olé!” he exclaimed. “What else do you want me to say, eh?” Nothing, Keith. Just give us, give us, give us the “Honky-Tonk Women.”
— Thom Powers (@thompowers) September 17, 2016