Saturday, 22 August 2015



In 1968 radical French film director Jean-Luc Godard wanted to create revolutionary art in cinema. He had already developed a style that threw out conventional linear narrative and cinematic technique and now he wanted to incorporate rock music into his societal critique by showing the link between political power and that of the rock star.  At that time in early 1968, Paris had been besieged by youth riots, Black Power was on the rise and the Vietnam War was escalating. The most potent rock bands of the period were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Godard approached the former, wanting John Lennon to play Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Their meeting, far from inspiring Lennon, confused him about the project’s real intent so he pulled out. When Godard criticised the band in public for their lack of political engagement, Lennon hit back: ‘Dear Mr Godard. Just because we didn’t want to be in the film with you, it doesn’t mean to say that we aren’t doing any more than you’.

The director then moved on to the Stones, which promised a more genial reception: “I’ve seen all his pictures”, enthused Mick Jagger of Godard. “I think they’re groovy”. They allowed Godard the unique privilege of filming them in the studio creating one of their most famous revolution-tinged songs ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, (originally called ‘The Devil Is My Name’). This was the band’s return to blues form after the psychedelic misfire of ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ album.
Godard’s title for the film project would be ONE PLUS ONE. His idea was to combine the work of two influential movements of the zeitgeist in one film. Separate political scenes staged by him would be intercut with the Stones’ footage to draw parallels (possibly) between the manipulation of the public by political fire-brands and that achieved in adulation of the modern rock musician. Unfortunately, the idea was ‘nouvelle vague’ in theory and almost ruinously vague and pretentious in execution. Watching the film at home is sadly the only way to enjoy it as it’s best to speed through the dreadful fake posturing of the air-punching student politics. Godard filmed actors in the apt environs of a junk-yard, featuring an actor quoting controversial black power leaderEldridge Cleaver (arrested on suspicion of rape at that time) as well as Hitler. Three young ball-gowned women are machine-gunned as symbols of the luxury-ridden establishment. Cleaver’s sound-bite is used portentously: “We are going to get our freedom, or no-one, but no-one is going to get any peace on this earth”. 

The only peace is to fast-forward through Godard’s half-baked juvenile agit-prop nonsense to get to the good stuff. What gives the film real value is the fascinating fly-on-the-wall window into the genesis of the Rolling Stones’ song over time, especially to fans of the group (hence my seeking it out some years ago). We see ‘Sympathy’ begin life as a calypso tune of all things. Jagger, Richards and Jones strum the basic chords; Mick, dressed in a glam white kaftan, picks his way through an early version of the lyrics to an opening blocky percussive lilt that turns into Hammond organ accompaniment. Some word changes would later be made. (Here, he sings of how ‘the SS raged’ rather than the finished ‘Blitzkrieg’. It’s all very relaxed and condusive to creativity. In the next scene, Jagger opts briefly for a slower, more ballad-like feeling rendition which then morphs into a loose jazzy groove that already begins to sound like the version we know. Later, we see the bongo-drummed opening with our man struggling slightly to counter-point the new rhythm with his first verse – the ‘whoo-whoo’ adding in to the mix as he pumps his foot to the floor like he’s stepping on the gas to the finishing line. This then completes the transformation to the single that restored the Rolling Stones to ascendancy as 60s icons.

The movie’s problem is that the two clearly disparate stories have no connection. The band knew nothing of the political scenes Godard shot and intercutting between both does nothing to bond them either - it just interrupts the intriguing music work with pretentious waffle. Secondly, Godard’s idea was not to show the final scene of the Stones playing the finished version of the song. Instead he wanted audiences to just see the work in progress footage of them in mid-invention and make the connection themselves to the eventual released recording.

The band did not appreciate the creative liberties being taken with their material to suit the director’s impenetrable vision, nor did Godard’s producer Iain Quarrier, whose eye was on storming the box office not the barricades. A premiere was scheduled for November 1968; what Godard didn’t know was that Quarrier took the bold step of re-editing the film to include the finished version of ‘Sympathy’ and to change the title to that of the song for the extra commercial boost.  Godard tried to present his cut of the film outside, but fans did not vote with their feet. He lambasted the group, as he did the Beatles, but with the added charge of racism, insisting they were being ‘…unfair to the black people’. Jagger saw through this ludicrous claim of pretended alliance: “I don’t think Godard understands anything about black people…He’s such a fucking twat...’

In SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, the Rolling Stones allowed their music intimately to introduce itself, giving persuasive time to the Devil  - but not much in conclusion to a self-important darling of the New Wave…

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