Charting the history of the band through their numerous celluloid portraits
By Michael Bonner
There are many reasons to admire Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s film of the Rolling Stones’ two-night stint in autumn 2006 at New York’s Beacon Theater. As you’d imagine from Scorsese, it’s handsomely shot, his cameras capturing incredible shows. Scorsese also splices footage of the group into the film that stretches back down the years, and reminds us that, after nearly half a century together, the Stones can legitimately claim to be the most documented rock band in history.
The entire trajectory of the Rolling Stones’ career seems to have been caught on celluloid, whether as avatars of Swinging London in the recently re-released Charlie is My Darling, demonstrating the grim actualities of life on the road in another renowned project, or celebrating the record-breaking enormo-gigs of their recent tours. What also makes these films so remarkable is the array of talent involved: Peter Whitehead, Jean-Luc Godard, Hal Ashby, the Maysles brothers and Scorsese, whose relationship with the Stones’ music began in 1973 with Mean Streets with Johnny Boy’s swaggering entrance into a bar to the song ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’.
Conveniently, six of these movies cover the pivotal years from 1965 to 1972, when the Stones became the biggest band in the world, a period bookended by their first American No 1 with ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ and the release of the Exile On Main Street album. Charlie is My Darling (1966) was shot over three days in Ireland in 1965 by underground documentary-maker Peter Whitehead. Charlie… is a sort of distant relative of A Hard Day’s Night; Whitehead captures the band running from fans across railway tracks, cutting gigs short following stage invasions or in a hotel ballroom holding a drunken sing-song round a piano. Whitehead even manages to coax a half-decent interview out of the reticent Charlie Watts (some of which Scorsese uses in Shine a Light), but it’s the footage of Brian Jones, launching into lengthy, preposterous soliloquies whenever Whitehead’s camera hits him, that emphasises his growing alienation from the rest of the band.
You see a lot of the back of Brian Jones’ head in Sympathy for the Devil, Godard’s film of the band’s June 1968 recording sessions, with Jones isolated in a booth, strumming an acoustic guitar and not engaging as the rest of the band transform a raggedy blues jam into a voodoo storm. The sessions offer a behind-the-curtain insight into the band’s process, so it’s infuriating when Godard cuts away to show anarchists and Black Panthers delivering po-faced diatribes inspired by the tumultuous events of that year.
Admittedly, it’s interesting to see how eager the counterculture was to connect the Stones with the dark currents of the time. Donald Cammell, Nicolas Roeg and Kenneth Anger tried to tap into the Stones’ cool, Cammell and Roeg with Performance (1970) and Anger via a proposed version of Lucifer Rising (1972) that was to feature Jagger. You can have a lot more fun with Rock and Roll Circus, though poor old Brian gets short shrift again.
A post-Pepper TV shindig from 1968, with the Stones hosting a big-top costume extravaganza featuring Jethro Tull, The Who and The Dirty Mac – a supergroup comprising Lennon, Richards and Eric Clapton, all men of a shared persuasion, alongside Yoko Ono and Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, it never aired and its release was delayed for nearly 30 years, apparently because the Stones weren’t happy with their performance. As for Brian, apart from some lovely slide playing on ‘No Expectations’ he’s distant and adrift. It was his last performance with the Stones; in June 1969 he was sacked and died, presumed drowned, on July 3.
Two days after his death, the Stones played a free concert in Hyde Park – released on film as The Stones in the Park – originally intended to introduce new guitarist Mick Taylor, but in effect Jones’s epitaph. Jagger reads from Shelley’s ‘Adonis’ – ‘Okay, are you going to be quiet or not?’ – and several thousand rather droopy-looking white butterflies flap into the air. The security for the Hyde Park show was provided by Hell’s Angels, whose services the band enlisted for another free show, at the Altamont Speedway in northern California that December. If Woodstock, in August, represented the free festival as the hippy dream of peace and love at its flowery height, Altamont was its dark reflection.
Here, the Angels were out of control, and during the show, audience member Meredith Hunter was killed by an Angel after Hunter pulled a gun. Albert and David Maysles film Hunter’s death, and record the band’s reaction to the footage when they watch it back in the editing suite for the cheerless climax to their documentary ‘Gimme Shelter’ (1970).
In 1972, the Stones, on the career high of Exile…, returned to the States for the first time since Altamont, taking photographer Robert Frank with them to document the tour for what became another outrageously titled film, ending in Blues. It’s a brilliant film, if only for what it shows us about the state of the Stones at the time: big-money tours and the ennui that leads to outrageous levels of debauchery. Unsurprisingly, the band took out an injunction against the film; Frank can only screen it at private events.
Hal Ashby, one of Scorsese’s peers and the great casualty of that era, shot perhaps the most conventional live Stones film, Let’s Spend the Night Together (1983). But his film pales next to Gimme Shelter – lacking, as it does, a juicy murder to spice things up.
It also comes up short against Shine a Light. If most of the recent crop of live Stones’ DVDs are designed to convey the sheer scale of their record-breaking tours (there are seven hours of material included on 2007’s ‘The Biggest Bang’ four-disc set), Scorsese goes the opposite way. The intimacy of the 3,000 capacity Beacon Theater affords him the opportunity to get pore-deep, with the camera lingering on their physiognomy, celebrating the fact that no other rock band has got this far and survived, against the odds, to be here now. You can see in the film something of the way we perceive Jagger and Richards, and their often fractious relationship, Scorsese amplifying to a pantomimic degree Jagger’s reputation for control freakery, as the frustrated director struggles to get a set list from Mick before the shows, while Keith larks around in the background, the model of pirate chic, smoking with Ronnie Wood and slyly mocking the show’s MC, Bill Clinton.
What Shine a Light defiantly shows is a band still profoundly united by a love of music, evidenced by a stunning cameo from Buddy Guy, who leaves them all pretty much in awe, struck, you’d imagine, by something transcending death, murder, arrests and feuds, tapping into what it must have been like for them, back there at the beginning of all things.