What Blues Now? Ultra-Rare Stones Doc Screens at TIFF

So Justin Bieber’s partying with Brazilian call-girls and Lady Gaga sleeps with her bandmates. It’s all a bit… *yawn*, ya know? Each era has its debauched poster-children, from Pete Doherty and the sad late Amy Winehouse to the brothers Gallagher and their band Blowasis to Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan OD-ing on heroin and then there’s pretty much everyone in the 80s. But if you want the pinnacle of rock’n’roll excess, you have to reach even further back, to the substance-spanning depravity of the 70s when bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones ruled the roost. In 1972, the Stones let director Robert Frank capture their Exile on Main Street tour. The resulting film was so gritty and authentic, they immediately banned it from release. Said Mick Jagger, “If it shows in America we’ll never be allowed in the country again.” Instead it stayed underground, suppressed, vividly  legendary. This Friday, January 17th, TIFF springs open the vault, giving a rare opportunity to catch this bracingly graphic rock-doc, called Cocksucker Blues.

If the Rolling Stones were worried about filming another tour after the harrowing results of 1970’s Gimme Shelter, it didn’t show. That documentary had unforgettably captured the violence of the 1969 riot at Altamont, when Hells Angels hired for crowd control killed a member of the audience. Mick Jagger’s ashen reaction as he’s captured in an editing room watching the footage of that moment is extraordinary. But nothing stops the Stones; they are the cockroaches of rock’n’roll. As the decades have flown by they’ve survived everything: unlimited drugs and sex, diminished musical output, and bandmates’ departures both mortal and temperamental. (I’ve come to believe their deal with the devil is a manifest Portrait of Dorian Gray, Keith Richards absorbing all their years and excesses into his haggard apple doll face, while Mick Jagger struts and preens in a wiry pantomime of youth.) With all that in mind, making another tour doc a scant two years after Gimme Shelter’s grim events didn’t phase them in the slightest.

The Stones invited Robert Frank to accompany them as they jetted across North America on tour. A respected photographer, they’d taken note of his landmark 1958 book of unvarnished portraits The Americans. He provided the photographs and design of their 1972 release Exile on Main Street, and his simple direct visual style suited that album’s rootsier rock sound. For the tour, Frank shot much of the footage with the assistance of his lone sound man Danny Seymour (who would die of an overdose a few years later). They pushed the cinéma verité style further, providing cameras that anyone could pick up and shoot with, at any time. There’s an infamous scene (in a movie assembled almost entirely of infamous scenes) of Mick Jagger filming himself as he strokes his own chest and jeans, unbuttoning as he prepares to masturbate. The scene cuts before we get the full Mick, but that bleary-eyed exhibitionism pervades every frame.

Those omnipresent cameras give us the ultimate insider view of being on tour with a hugely successful band, the overheated excess, the ubiquitous drugs, groupies and roadies getting right down to business on the band’s chartered jet as the Stones cheer them on, playing bongos and clapping. That unfettered access makes Cocksucker Blues compelling and sometimes uncomfortable, but it does a number of other things supremely well. The loneliness, boredom and fatigue of touring come through in soul-sucking sequences of waiting, shuffling around, and nodding off in a heroin stupor. Indeed the boundless drug use and steady alcoholism are essential to stave off the numbing sameness of hotel room, crowd, limousine, jet, hotel room, hangers-on, crowd, and so on. Not to say there isn’t an interesting assortment of characters that come floating through. Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Terry Southern and Tina Turner all make appearances backstage.

The live footage is fascinating. Early on we see Mick prancing as only Mick can, his moves frenetic, his tongue lashing across his teeth as he sings, all the signs present of a man very hopped up on cocaine. He’s singing too fast for the band, but the energy and intensity they all share is so good. Mick Taylor is playing with this Stones incarnation, arguably the best guitar player they ever had, all gossamer and melodic fills as Keith holds down the rhythmic skronk. Later in the film we’re treated to a marvellously young Stevie Wonder (their opening act on the tour) joining the Stones with a full brass section for a medley of “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Satisfaction”. The performers all feed off one another with joyously infectious outpouring, even as one of the trumpeters keeps stealing sips from Stevie’s drink, perched right in front of him on his piano. That sly magnificent chaos that coalesces into a pulsating groove and jangle, that’s what the Stones are like at their best.

And there are so many other indelible moments. Frank captures a sweet interlude of Mick and his wife Bianca that seems like an oasis in the middle of so much insanity. Mick and Keith sit in a hotel room, bobbing their heads listening to the first pressing of “Happy”, critiquing the mix before quietly singing along, caught up in hearing their new single. The film’s title Cocksucker Blues comes from another song Mick and Keith wrote as a kiss-off to their old label Decca Records. They owed Decca one more album, so they sent them a track so lewd (for the time) that it couldn’t be released, and the label happily sent them packing.

Due to the film’s explicit take, the Stones and their management felt they had to stop its release, and sued Robert Frank to halt the film. A judge decreed the film could only be shown four times a year, and only if Robert Frank was personally present, thus killing any chance of wide release. While the group acknowledged Cocksucker Blues was a great film, the fear it would cause legal damage for the band was too real to be ignored. It circulated on bootleg video for years, and of course segments have wended their way onto YouTube more recently. Screenings are very rare. It appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s show “The Rolling Stones: 50 Years on Film” in 2012, and now TIFF is fortunate to be presenting a free screening to the public on Friday, January 17th at 6:30pm. Chances like this are few, to see such an underground classic on the big-screen with a full theatre sound system. So if you’re anywhere near Toronto on Friday, get your ya-yas out and roll on down to the Bell Lightbox. Their satanic majesties are waiting.

Cocksucker Blues appears as part of Hold Still – Keep Going: The Films of Robert Frank. He’s made a number of short documentaries, too, including the Beat classic Pull My Daisy, featuring Jack Kerouac’s narration and starring Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso and others. That short appears with two others on Saturday, January 18th at 4:30pm. You can view the whole program here.

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