By Ray Young
A film by Robert Frank and Daniel Seymour.
Not released in 1972.
Much talked about but rarely seen, this documentary of the Rolling Stones and their 1972 American tour was filmed not long after Mick Jagger nearly took a bullet at Altamont. There was an eerie restlessness about that earlier (1969) concert, which found the Stones tossed in a Lord of the Flies mosh-pit, policed by a blitzed battalion of Hell’s Angels.
(1970) was the document of that bloody epoch, and it went on to win awards, make the Maysles brothers famous and turn a profit. It was likely instrumental in getting Cocksucker Blues
off the ground, too—at least from the distribution end—an opportunity to repeat Gimme Shelter
’s success in the eye of a Stones tour and the release of a new album.
That recording, Exile on Main Street
, sported a faux-collage cover photograph taken in 1950 by Robert Frank. (It was actually a shot of the cluttered wall of a tattoo parlor.) More of Frank’s black and white images were used below Jagger’s handwritten credits on the jacket, a graphic indication of a turning point for the Stones. Loose, hard and fast, Exile
eschewed the tight production of preceding albums, and let the band rip. This lax attitude carried through on Cocksucker Blues
, as the camera went backstage, in airplanes and hotel rooms to espy all the indiscriminate sex, drug use and inebriated ramblings of the Stones and their entourage.
The salty title notwithstanding, its nudity, needles and hedonism was supposedly incriminating and the picture was shelved—this during a liberal climate that saw the likes of Cry Uncle!
and Chafed Elbows
playing in neighborhood theatres. A generic performance film, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones
, was released instead, and Cocksucker Blues
became a myth.
A more likely scenario would have the financiers and distributors aghast by Frank’s stoned shapelessness. Curiously spare on songs and ostensibly unconcerned with band’s musical process, the film, rather than act as bystander, becomes one with its subject. Haphazardly arranged, Cocksucker Blues
is less a film than a chattering cocaine hum.
Frank had developed a unique subjective approach in Pull My Daisy
(1958), nurturing Beat sensibility with the joyous participation of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Corso. It was co-directed with Alfred Leslie, as Frank has never been averse to working with others. (Frank and Rudy Wurlitzer’s Candy Mountain
 is certainly worth tracking down.) In retrospect, his collaborations have displayed the influence of his partners, and with Daniel Seymour on Cocksucker Blues
, a druggy lack of purpose sets in.
Contrary to the buoyancy percolating in the small apartment of Pull My Daisy
, backstage with the Stones we find ourselves incarcerated with an oppressive clique. A dreary couple droning on while shooting heroin becomes an extended leitmotif that plays it’s hand prematurely; that Frank and Seymour revisit them—more than once!—is laborious at best. Keith Richards tossing a TV off a hotel balcony is a staged prank that inadvertently exposes the emptiness of the act. That he and his pals prolong it with obligatory chortles only adds to the embarrassment. Above all else is the young pregnant woman eager to give birth while tripping on acid, where Frank is furnished with pathos off the cuff.
Despite flawed mono sound, the raw energy of Exile on Main Street
carries over to the frugal concert footage. “Happy” soars while profiling the Jagger/Richards charisma. The demonically charged “Midnight Rambler” maintains its pulsating arc after all these years, and a teaming with Stevie Wonder—where the Stones momentarily stumble on the loose flow of Stevie’s r&b/funk—is nothing less than exuberant. Yet throughout all of this, Frank juxtaposes wide-angle close-ups with tightly packed full-frame shots, where claustrophobia has never been more palpable.
Defenders will point out the value of a filmed record so connected to its subject as to become one with it. Gimme Shelter
and Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil
(1968) are impartial and express moments in the Stones’ history. But Frank and Seymour and Cocksucker Blues
are jumbled beyond coherence, so subjective it’s almost surreal.
Copyright © 2004 by Ray Young