‘The Rolling Stones: 50 Years on Film’


“There’s a sexual thing onstage between performer and audience,” Mick Jagger, then 22, dryly observes in Charlie Is My Darling, Peter Whitehead’s 1965 chronicle of the Rolling Stones’ Irish tour. Watching the band stir lust and other primal instincts in MOMA’s invaluable survey of the Stones on celluloid, commencing 10 days before the group plays a handful of arena gigs to mark its golden anniversary, ranks as one of this year’s most voluptuous filmgoing experiences.

Whitehead’s documentary, which shows frenzied Dublin and Belfast teens rushing the stage and tackling the band to the ground, reveals just how close Eros and Thanatos would always be at Stones concerts. But the film is also an essential record of the group, pre-superstardom, speaking earnestly about fame, at times with eerie prescience. Stones co-founder Brian Jones softly avows, “My ultimate goal in life was never to be a pop star.” Four years later, he’d get his wish, receiving renown of another kind: rock martyr, dead at age 27, less than a month after his bandmates had sacked him.

With its scenes of Jagger and Richards rehearing songs like “Sittin’ on a Fence,” Charlie Is My Darling presages other films about the quintet’s process. The evolution of the song that gives Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968) its title remains the most hypnotizing thread of the director’s wobbly cine tract devoted to Marxist revolution and the Black Panthers. Filming over several days in the studio, Godard captures multiple iterations of the ode to Lucifer, from a sluggish, acoustic-guitar-heavy number to the indelible anthem with the percussive, grunting intro.

I’m a man of wealth and taste: Jagger’s first-person identification with the Prince of Darkness enhanced his reputation as a snake-hipped Pied Piper leading fans to debauched excess. He’s an erudite Mephistopheles, though, as seen in The Stones in the Park (1969), a TV documentary of the group’s free concert in London’s Hyde Park directed by Leslie Woodhead. The event, occurring on July 5, 1969, just two days after Jones’s death, began with a high-minded tribute: Jagger reads Shelley’s “Adonaïs”; roadies release white butterflies as the band launches into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” By the time the Stones do “Sympathy,” Jagger, in skin-tight white trousers outlining the frontman’s signature bulge, has made the nearly half-million in attendance hard and wet; even the Hells Angels, providing security, can’t resist shimmying.

Five months later and more than 5,000 miles away, another free concert with the outlaw motorcyclists as security guards ended in blood. The infamous snuff rockumentary Gimme Shelter (1970), directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, features Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts in front of the filmmakers’ editing table, watching themselves that disastrous night at California’s Altamont Speedway. “Can you roll back on that, David?” Jagger politely asks, as Maysles shows, frame by frame, Meredith Hunter pulling out a gun followed by his fatal stabbing by an Angel—a murder that occurred while the band was performing “Under My Thumb.”

Before Gimme Shelter shifts into an uneasy countdown to a killing, it reveals, in its first half, the band ecstatically nearing the peak of its power at a concert at Madison Square Garden. That same bifurcation marks the two films chronicling the 1972 U.S. tour, to promote the masterpiece, Exile on Main St. Never released, Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues begins with this disingenuous disclaimer: “Except for the musical numbers, the events depicted in this film are fictitious.” Those “events,” which dwarf the amount of time devoted to concert footage, highlight the depraved indulgences and tedium of life on the road: orgies on planes; Jagger snorting coke off a knife blade; Richards playing cards; an unidentified woman tying off as another, seemingly soaked in cum, says, “I saw fireflies last night.” Rollin Binzer’s Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones (1974), in contrast, is nothing but the group onstage during that ’72 tour, assembled from four electrifying dates in Texas. Jagger, strutting in velvet bodysuits, is a foxy pansexual sylph—or, as Anita Pallenberg says of Turner, the louche character the singer, in one of his first acting gigs, plays in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970), “He’s a man—a male and female man!”

That film also features another spot-on line directed at Jagger’s AC/DC pop recluse, from co-star James Fox: “Comical little geezer. You’ll look funny when you’re 50.” The prediction held true even before Jagger turned 40, as he rehashes the greatest hits with the band in its 1981 arena tour, documented in Hal Ashby’s soulless Let’s Spend the Night Together (1983). The three remaining original Stones—Jagger, Richards, and Watts—were all sexagenarians by the time of Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light (2008), a hand-jobbing document of yet another victory-lap concert. “The only performance that really makes it is the one that achieves madness,” Jagger says in Cammell and Roeg’s film. This series reminds us just how many times the Rolling Stones surpassed that benchmark.