The tabloids, as well as the broadsheets and a battalion of photographers, were out in force at Cannes on Wednesday as the Directors’ Fortnight premiered Stephen Kijak’s Stones in Exile, a documentary on the Rolling Stones’ legendary 1972 album Exile on Main Street. Founded in 1969 as a forum for independent cinema, the festival sidebar usually screens art films more likely to be discussed in specialized film magazines than in tabloids. Mick Jagger’s appearance doubtless prompted this unusual attention to what is normally a low-key celebration of auteur cinema. It appears that even the sedate Fortnight has a soft spot for star-f------.
As I proceeded to wait an hour and 45 minutes to gain entrance to the screening, I pondered—when I wasn’t feeling slightly foolish for waiting there in the first place—why, more than any other rock band, the Stones have inspired such an array of provocative, and frequently scandalous, documentaries. The group’s—and especially Jagger’s—chameleon-like nature have proved irresistible for filmmakers, I concluded. In addition, chronicling the Rolling Stones has allowed directors to find an audience-friendly entry point for commenting on the turbulent historical currents of the ’60s and ’70s.
Kijak’s film is not in a league with other classic Stones documentaries. It gives the impression of being a promotional film, which is precisely what it happens to be.
To cite a somewhat obscure example, the great British director Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, unavailable to the public at present because of legal wrangling, depicts the musicians at a point in 1966 when they were just becoming famous and hadn’t yet coalesced into notorious bad boys. Jagger in particular is clearly quite insecure, despite some superficially hip banter, and very much resembles the middle-class former London School of Economics student he wanted the world to forget. Albert and David Maysles’ much more famous Gimme Shelter, the seminal movie about the 1969 debacle at the Altamont Free Concert near San Francisco, displays the gap between Jagger’s cocky on-stage demeanor and his shocked but naïve response to the murder of an audience member. Finally, Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues—which, because of a court order precipitated by the Stones themselves, who were displeased with the film’s content, is available for viewing only on inferior bootlegs and at clandestine screenings—offers an unsparingly intimate view of the North American tour that followed the release of Exile. It became notorious for its frank glimpses of the group’s heroin use, as well as a scene of Jagger masturbating for the camera. Some critics have concluded that Jagger & Co. were less concerned about these salacious details than the fact that they would come off as decidedly unappealing and narcissistic.
Kijak’s film is not in a league with these classics—not to mention other Stones documentaries such as Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One or Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light. It gives the impression of being a promotional film, which, having been executive- produced by Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts, and designed for inclusion in a new “Super Deluxe” edition of Main Street, is precisely what it happens to be. Given the limitations of this genre, it’s a reasonably well-paced and informative, if workmanlike, effort. The story of the band’s decision to take up residence in the south of France as a result of punitive income taxes imposed by the British Labour government is competently sketched. The alluring decadence of a period that made possible what the Daily Mail, in an entertainingly gossipy article, labels “the most debauched album ever made,”is conveyed with a fair amount of candor; Richards discusses his fondness for hard drugs with surprising philosophical detachment. Ex-model, actress, and former Richards girlfriend Anita Pallenberg is even roped in to provide her jaundiced recollections of the Stones’ French sojourn.
Despite filling us in on some colorful factoids concerning the ambience at the Villa Nellcôte in Villefranche-sur-Mer, where the album was recorded, Stones fails to address some of the most intriguing questions surrounding this pivotal moment in rock history. For one thing, Main Street is a fascinating case study in the critical reception of popular culture. While the film acknowledges that many critics were lukewarm about the record when it was released and subsequently hailed it as a masterpiece, it could certainly have explored the issue with more rigor. Why did even such an astute critic as the late Lester Bangs finally embrace it as a masterpiece after initially dismissing it with a sneer? When discussing Main Street’s “greatness,” all that commentators such as Sheryl Crow, Benicio del Toro, recording engineer Andy Johns, and Scorsese can do is throw around clichés about the music’s “rawness” and its ineffable “coolness.”
At the Fortnight festivities, Jagger himself seemed as clueless about these topics as anyone else and fell back on his late-career charm—much more Sir Mick than His Satanic Majesty. He introduced the film by jocularly proclaiming that “we were good-looking and stupid. Nixon was in the White House, there was a war in Vietnam. Now we’re just stupid.” In a post-screening press conference, where the journalists lobbed softball questions about whether he felt “nostalgic” for the ’70s, Jagger exhibited his trademark gift for repartee by flitting from topic to topic, at one point chuckling over a New York Times article that compiles delectable recipes using marijuana and, in a response to a question about Godard’s One Plus One (which oscillates between a recording session of the song “Sympathy for the Devil” and sequences featuring the Black Panthers) quipped that, although many acknowledge the director’s talent, few seemed to know “what that film is about.” No one asked why Stones employs extensive outtakes from Cocksucker Blues while Jagger and his band mates are still, at least as far as I know, preventing Frank’s film from being publicly screened in its entirety. (I tried, but couldn’t get the attention of the fawning moderator.) In any case, questions of that kind would have ruined the Mick Jagger love-in.
Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste magazine in New York and has written on film for Cinema Scope, In These Times, and Moving Image Source. His anthology, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press), was published in 2009.