Plot Outline :
With Cocksucker Blues, Frank bids a final adieu to the utopia of the Beat generation. What did the Rolling Stones expect when they hired him to make a film about their 1972 North American tour? There are scenes of groupie sex in private jets, cocaine snorting, and even a masturbation scene in which Jagger reveals himself to be the cameraman in a reflected image.
But ultimately Frank focuses on the lonely spaces that permeate the rock and roll machine. This is the ultimate direct cinema. The camera movement infects the images with an unbelievable filmic energy, and Frank ignores all orientation guidelines. Populated by the living dead, Cocksucker Blues is a zombie film with no refuge.
Gadfly Online Review :
In 1972, high on the critical and popular acclaim of Exile On Main Street, the Rolling Stones undertook a 30-city, 41-show tour of North America. For posterity, and perhaps out of a keen prescience, they had director/photographer Robert Frank in tow to shoot a documentary. Frank, also responsible for the photo montage in the Exile liner notes, may or may not have known what he was getting into, but the result is more than just the voyeuristic thrill show legend suggests. Cocksucker Blues, as it is known, is truly the most important film you’ve never seen.
In rock ‘n’ roll lore, Cocksucker Blues (a title derived from an unreleased Jagger/Richards track of the same name) is a two-word synonym for decadence, the most infamous and shocking film about the most infamous and shocking band. So much so that the Stones themselves, not the most modest chaps around, have steadfastly refused for almost 30 years to let it see the official light of day, despite the obvious gold mine it represents. Only devotees and seekers have seen it, and, as such, its reputation remains largely untarnished.
To address Cocksucker Blues properly, however, requires a certain amount of analytical schizophrenia. At heart, it’s really two films. As a Rolling Stones tour film, or just a documentary, it has its merits and its failings. But it certainly holds up—despite the lack of exposure. There’s plenty to gawk at: copious drug use, sexual exploits of downright Roman proportions, vintage concert footage (though less than one would expect) and some fine examples of cinema verite camera work. And, to a fair extent, it deserves its reputation as a shocker, and the Stones were right to ban it. There’s no doubt that for the whole world to actually see, as opposed to merely surmise, the extent to which the Stones and their attendants indulged rock clichés would turn off the faint of heart. But far more interesting than such speculations is the flip side of the Cocksucker Blues coin: its incredible relevance as a popular cultural artifact, the missing final link in a trilogy that began with Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil and the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter.
And here is why Cocksucker Blues is so much more than just a rockumentary or a Stones tour film or a peek into the seamy underworld of rock sleaze. Where Sympathy for the Devil is a study in the wide-open possibility of the late ’60s and Gimme Shelter is conclusive visual proof that the whole thing had already come to a halt before many people were willing to admit it, Cocksucker Blues is a blatant, no-punches-pulled account of the dirty nihilistic impulse which inevitably arises after the death of idealism. From the first moment to the last, Cocksucker Blues is both formally and topically free of pretensions. There are no grandiose pronouncements, no attempts to organize a gathering of the tribes, almost no attention paid to craft and Frank’s direction takes the hand-held, sync-sound aesthetic to an extreme, which seems to suggest that artlessness was the new artistic frontier.
By this point, the Stones had already cross-pollinated into the film world on a variety of occasions. Jagger was dabbling in movie stardom (1970 found him cavorting in Donald Cammel’s Performance), and the regular presence of a documentarian can hardly be called a coincidence. If the 1969 tour was a major musical event and cultural landmark, the 1972 tour was a roving Playboy mansion. Truman Capote and Andy Warhol have cameos, and hangers-on have nearly as much screen time as the Stones themselves. And yet it’s a Rolling Stones tour, and there’s no party without a host.
What the Stones were able to do is have the foresight to recognize that the spectacle had superseded the craft and the best art would be conscious of the new dynamic. One need only look a few years down the road to see just how right they were. The prog-rock renaissance, with its bloated melodrama, was just on the horizon, and books like Fear and Loathing would document the fallout that was the ’70s with painful eloquence.
Interestingly, Godard foreshadowed this very mood in Sympathy. The intercut scenes in that film are hard to peg as to the tongue-in-cheek factor, but it’s likely that, from afar, he could see the degeneration already underway. The film’s narrator has the last word: “I’ve got to get out of here.” Cocksucker Blues is what happens when one not only doesn’t get out, but goes even deeper. If there’s no hope left, why not just go crazy?
Which is precisely why the lockbox policy on Cocksucker Blues is such a shame. There seems to be no willingness on the part of the cultural opinion-makers to reconsider the ’60s. This likely has everything to do with the fact that the same people who now control the history of that time are the people who would have the most to lose if the veil were removed. Cocksucker Blues not only removes the veil, it celebrates with a ceremonial burning. It’s irrefutable evidence that, if anything, Woodstock and Altamont are footnotes to a larger story. At no time before or since has there been such a rich confluence of film, music and culture with such broad implications. Cocksucker Blues is the part of that history we’d most like to forget and most need to remember.
Afterwards, of course, most of the central figures of the time eventually either died or moved into a quiet sellout, but the Stones remained front and center, not only persevering but capitalizing. But after Exile (and Cocksucker), they never quite reached the plateau again. One need only contemplate the Bridges to Babylon tour to see that, then as now, the Stones are American culture, for better or worse, from the Maysles brothers to Robert Frank to Imax.
User Comments :
Sheer brilliance from Robert Frank, one of the great visual artists of our time. Let’s say right at the start that the concert footage (the only portions of “CB” in color) captures some of the Stones’ best performances ever on film, including a splendid “Midnight Rambler” and a wonderful medley of “Uptight” and “Satisfaction” with Stevie Wonder.
But the meat of this film is in the off-the-cuff, life-on-the-road footage, shot in a beautiful, grainy black and white. Other important filmmakers worked with the Stones before and after (J-L Godard on “One Plus One,” Hal Ashby on the regrettable “Let’s Spend the Night Together”), but this is the great one because it does the opposite of glamorizing the band — it reveals the quotidian nature of their antics on the road. Lots of outrageous things happen: roadies shoot up, Keith Richards throws a TV set out the window and displays himself in various states of extreme intoxication and/or nodding off, groupies are abused on the tour bus, etc.
But Frank reveals it all in his unique deadpan style, letting you see the band members as individuals carrying on an everyday existence rather than as celebrities. In his camera, the excess is all of a piece with the mundane details: Jagger sitting on his hotel bed ordering a bowl of fruit, a conversationless walk along a road, etc.
Frank doesn’t deglamorize his subject, either — despite the squalor of some of what he shows us, he isn’t out to debunk the Stones and their hangers-on, but to reveal them to us as part of everyday life and the spectacle they put on as a workaday component of the larger spectacle society feeds to the masses as entertainment. The effect is a little like the messier backstage scenes of such films as von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel,” Bergman’s “Sawdust and Tinsel,” or Fellini’s “Variety Lights,” where the everyday routine that goes on behind the making of an illusion seems somehow harder and crueller than it would in any other setting. But it’s life, as Robert Frank observes it in our airbrushed, late-capitalist world.
The wonderful last shot, as Jagger throws his arm into the air amidst an explosion of lights and camera flashes, ends it with a flourish, but by now we’ve seen the mess behind the flash. This film grows you up.
Officially, “CB” was the film of the Stones’ 1972 US tour, but for murky reasons (one hears it was the shooting-up sequences that did it) the band barred its release and only allows it to be shown occasionally. In its place, the relatively uninspired “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones!” was released. Too bad — catch “CB” if you can, or seek out one of the many bootleg videotapes circulating, although the color repro on the latter can sometimes be lousy.
1. Saville Theatre 1969 (9:18)
2. Rolling Stones In Australia 1973 (33:07)
3. Promos (22:21)
4. Brown Sugar Clip 1973 (1:41)
5. David Frost Show 1969 (5:23)
6. Interviews With Mick Jagger (11:32)
7. Mick And Biancas Wedding (3:49)