Shine a Light
Cocksucker Blues, Dir. Robert Frank, 1972, Never Playing Anywhere
When I got wind that the scarcely seen Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues was screening at The Anthology Film Archives, I made sure to get a seat. Cocksucker Blues is the single Mick Jagger wrote to fulfill the band’s contractual obligations to Decca Records. Full of profanity, and aimed to enrage the executives, the song was never released. The film of the same name, a gritty, perhaps too honest account of the Stones' 1972 Exile on Main Street US tour is the most accurate display of the rock and roll lifestyle, so shocking that the Rolling Stones banned its release and distribution, and obtained a court injunction against the filmmaker — legendary photographer Robert Frank. Frank was granted the rights to screen the film once a year, given he was physically present. After a brief introduction to the film, the speaker at Anthology concluded by saying: “This never happened.”
Robert Frank, the iconic, influential 20th Century American street photographer/filmmaker, not only questioned and reshaped the photographic style of postwar America, shattering its wholesome image and revealing an honest portrait of American life, he also created one of, if not the greatest, rock and roll films of all time.
“The eye should learn to listen before it looks,” says Frank, in an interview in Moving Out. This statement is evident in Blues, a genius work of cinéma vérité, which grants the viewer access to a real backstage tour without glamorization. The vibe is established from the get-go; the Stones fooling around on their instruments in a near empty warehouse, producing abstract sounds. A montage of shots follows; a single light bulb, a pile of cocaine and a bottle of whisky, which segues into one of the many hotel rooms inhabited by the Stones somewhere in the south. Enamored with symbols of power, Frank (who shot the inauguration of Eisenhower and Nixon) manages to bring the gods of rock down off their thrones so we can hang. Scenes on the Stones’ private jet are dubbed over with dialogue from various interviews and press releases about the downfall of America’s youth, branding Jagger “the Lucifer of Rock." Yet in Blues, Jagger is rather timid in his off time, looking gaunter than in the 1970 documentary Gimmie Shelter, and more dazed. Cameras were aplenty on the tour; some of the footage is shot by the Stones themselves, most noteworthy a scene of Jagger masturbating on a bed beneath a mirrored ceiling, filming himself in Super 8.
There is no shortage in footage of intravenous drug use, nudity, possibley unwanted sexual intercourse (while the band circles around banging tambourines), people nodding off left and right, naked women wiping ejaculate off their thighs, and Mick milling about in his tighty whities and crawling around on the stage in a skin-tight sweaty onesie. But what softens these explicit images so beautifully is Frank’s use of sound, montage, and mostly black and white film. A ten minute scene of a post-show party in a dingy locker room becomes a mesmerizing visual triumph. Under the eerily soothing voice-over of a smacked-out southern groupie, Keith Richards and a girl nod off into each other’s arms, seemingly soothed by the off-stage voice of the girl. The most memorable moments in Blues are not the stage performances (except when the band joins Stevie Wonder) but in subtle, everyday portraits of life on the road. Tired of the plane, the band and Bianca pile in a car en route to their next show. They visit a gas station and check for their names on a mini license-plate rack like a pack of regular kids. An extreme close up of Jagger licking an ice cream cone and staring vacantly into the sun like a twelve-year-old proves rather touching. This is the Lucifer of Rock?? As they cruise in the car, the hand-held black-and-white Godardian footage of a sunny day is softly complimented by Elvis’s Love Me Tender, while a quick image of a hand emerging from a jail is overlapped by a shot of a wooden cross on someone’s lawn emblazoned with the words “Repent Now.” Frank’s editing is spectacular. Dialogue is completely secondary, unimportant, and the film’s script consists of murmurs of the sounds of life on the road, of Frank's thoughtful selection of voice-over, and the Stones’ album Exile on Main Street, all fused so seamlessly it seems accidental, and so immersive you forget it’s a movie. It’s no surprise that among many great influences, Cassavetes is on Frank’s list, and like Cassavetes, Frank achieves a beautiful feeling of discomfort.
Exile on Main Street was the Stone’s first tour since the disaster at their free concert at the Altamont Speedway in late 1969, where a fan was stabbed to death by one of the Hell’s Angels. In Gimmie Shelter, traces of a struggle between two opposing forces—the harsh reality of the streets (the jacked up Angels) coming head to head with the suburban street wannabees (the blissed out hippies)— was evident. In Shelter, the drug of choice was still LSD (even for the Angels, but in elephantine quantities), and many of its scenes are reminiscent of Monterey Pop, whereas Blues exhibits the recreational pharmacopia of the aftermath of hippiedom; downers, coke, whisky and heroin. If needles make you squeamish, this film is not for you. One female groupie appears so often she’s practically the star of the film, shooting up while looking directly into the camera (held by Frank’s co-camera man and good friend Danny Seymour, who plummeted into heroin addiction during the making of Cocksucker Blues). In one of the film’s final scenes, a woman outside a Stones’concert rages because her baby was taken away from her because she was tripping on acid. “She was born on acid, what’s wrong with that? If I don’t get into the show I’ll go jump off a bridge, I’ve got nothing else to live for.” The free love of the flower children became something more sordid, and Blues renders a full accounting of that something.
Frank revels in the crust of life on tour, indirectly invoking the subtle enchantment that accrues to random hotel rooms inhabited by rock gods post-concert, then somehow—through capturing the serene morning light streaming in through the tall windows while the bags are packed—he shows how that magic vanishes. Cocksucker Blues proves a wholly spellbinding trip with the Rolling Stones through America’s back roads, weaving through the backstage parties and hotel rooms of the most successful and widely documented rock and roll band of all time, shot by one of the greatest photographers of all time. It’s a damn shame it’s so hard to see.