The Best Stones Film You've Never Seen

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Michael Putland / Retna

Keith Richards backstage, Frankfurt, 1973

It's been available for years in poor-quality, black-and-white bootleg copies at a few hundred indie video stores around the world, but there is only one way to see it legally. In 1972, Swiss-born photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank made a documentary about the first Rolling Stones tour of North America after the tragedy of four deaths at Altamont Free Concert two years earlier. The film was called Cocksucker Blues, after a song Mick Jagger wrote to anger record company executives with its stark, homoerotic lyrics and the aggressive manner in which he sings them. Although the movie was originally commissioned by the Stones themselves, they blocked its release when they saw the scenes of drug use and graphic groupie sex. After years of legal headaches, the band and Frank agreed to a sort-of compromise: the film can be shown only a few times a year, and Frank himself decides where and when, so that he may be present to ensure the screening meets his approval. In the age of YouTube (on whose servers several choice moments reside), ubiquitous, low-priced DVDs and Video-on-Demand, a film that is only permitted to be seen a limited times per year in one city in its director's presence is nearly inconceivable.

As part of its three-week-long retrospective of Frank's film and video works, a screening was hastily arranged Thursday night at the Pompidou Center in Paris. Despite minimal publicity, the infamous film sold out quickly, the 315 seats snatched up on a first-come, first-serve basis. There was a sense of collective privilege, as the lights went down, to be able to see an original (non-subtitled) copy of the 16mm film projected in a theater with quality sound. The excited crowd was comprised most of people in their 20s and 30s, many soixante-huitards (or "68ers," as the now-middle-aged former revolutionaries are known), a few Anglo-Saxon expatriates and anyone else with a life flexible enough to be able to stand in line on a weekday morning.

I'd heard about the film for years, seen its VHS box with photo-copied cover art at video stores in Chicago and San Francisco (always out, of course), and had read with relish the lyrical synopsis of the film that is among the best recountings of any film in literature: three pages halfway through Don DeLillo's opus on the American cultural landscape of the 20th century, Underworld. So what's all the fuss about? The movie documents a sex, drugs and rock n' roll party that's over despite most not wanting to admit it. It presents a portrait of the band tired of touring and feigning interest, of the boring, naked groupies, of life for a few lads who are already blasť about getting anything they could ask for. When the band isn't playing music — either onstage or in impromptu tourplane jams, where they do seem happy and engaged — they seem tired and uninterested. In other words, like drummer Charlie Watts has looked every day since 1963. It is the hangers-on who partake in the activities of the film's title (though some of it reportedly staged) and do all the drugs — not the Stones, with the exception a blink-and-you-could-miss-it shot of Mick snorting powder off a knife. Keith Richards readies a rolled dollar bill, then plaintively signals the cameraman to turn away before he partakes. Perhaps most pointedly, beyond all the antics of sex, drugs and rock n' roll, the film is a testament to overexposure. Everybody films everybody, all the time, even when nothing is happening. Mick even films himself massaging his unmentionables in a mirrored hotel ceiling.

The sentiment of going through the motions is best crystallized in the moment Keith and a roadie throwing their hotel room TV off the balcony. There's a little too much prudence in the whole affair, and after an initial giggle, the TV's impact seems less than satisfying. Yes, the party's over, and it was an entirely different Rolling Stones that emerged as the era gave way to sailor Mick prancing in soap suds and endorsement deals, all the way to present day, where, with the same waistline and hairstyle seen in Cocksucker Blues, he continues to sing "Street-Fighting Man" to adoring crowds.

The only controversy of the film Thursday night was its sound problem. Early on, the theater's speaker system sputtered out a half-dozen times, leaving the soundtrack silent for some two minutes. Save for a few heavy sighs and shouts of "C'est pas normal!," the audience remained oddly quiet.

So what does Frank think of the film 35 years on? And is it true that Mick loves it, but felt obligated to prevent its release to ensure the band could continue to tour? Does its director consider it as an honest document that in all its messy debauchery, anger, humor and impunity represents the true spirit of rock n' roll of the era? Who knows. Rock n' roll may never die, and certainly not before it gets old, but the 82-year-old Frank — who was present at the Pompidou Center to open his retrospective the previous night — was too tired to make it to the screening. Still, the show went on. That's the spirit.