Soundchecks Music Reviews

Sympathy for the Devil

146 minutes (15) 1968

Fremantle / Fabulous

Rolling Stones

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL
director: Jean-Luc Godard

review by Andrew Darlington

Not Jean-Luc Picard - Jean-Luc Godard, the French nouvelle vague director. That is, new wave director. And just because this movie says 'The Rolling Stones' across the box, Jean-Luc saw no reason to regard this as anything less than a Godard picture. After all, he is the real creative intelligence here, surely? He is the star. And the 'Stones are equally aware of it. They never wanted a counterpart to The Beatles' Let It Be movie. They wanted Godard's radical art-chic credentials to invest, adorn and burnish their own extreme persona. They both - the Stones and Godard, saw themselves as dangerous insurrectionists, largely through their carefully chosen - but safely distanced affiliations. The reflected association flatters them both. Their image... Their self-image... So this film celebrates the coming together of two vital divergent forces of radicalism, Godard's cine intellectualism and the Stones dandified Chicago blues. And although the resulting movie catches neither of them at their finest, it's what it represents that it's all about.

For Godard, this was his first film in English. But his anti-Hollywood - yet strangely Hollywood-fixated movies had already ripped up the script by inserting slogans, voice-overs, dislocations, speed, cynicism and the romance of existential terrorist. For him, famously, a movie should have a beginning, middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. Le Mepris ('Contempt', 1963) with Brigitte Bardot, and Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961) with his wife Anna Karina, were his most mainstream concoctions. A Bout De Souffle ('Breathless, 1959) is his best known. But Alphaville (1965) had transfigured Paris into a futuristic noir mega-city merely by artful selection and editing. And Weekend (1967) destroys narrative in ways that Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel would surely recognise, ending with the uncompromising statement 'fin du cinema'. To critics, he's perpetrating what they might call semiotics, deconstruction, scrambling of visual signals, creating a breeding ground for jargon and theory. Others might call it contrived and pretentious..?

For the Stones, the album Beggar's Banquet represented a return to form after the critically divisive psychedelic excesses of Their Satanic Majesties. And as well as providing the movie's central focus - Sympathy For The Devil, its 12 inches of black vinyl also includes the urgent dissatisfaction of Street-Fighting Man which catches the tear-gas flavour of the time better than just about anything else (as if Pete Doherty had the gumption or nerve to celebrate the recent Paris riots), the desolate beauty of the slide-guitar driven No Expectations, as well as the sluttish, lascivious (and possibly paedophile) prowl of Stray Cat Blues. And lyrically Sympathy For The Devil is one of their most ambitious songs, as though they're really trying. The Beatles might have been advocating Love Love Love, but the Stones "rode a tank, held a General's rank/ when the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank..." yet during its endless recording in a Barnes studio there's long periods of aimless tedium and bored strumming. Keith slumps on the floor, immaculately dissolute. Mick perches on a high stool flexing his flexible lyric-book. Charlie is boxed-off in a drum-booth. Bill looks bored. Brian sits in striped pants strumming his guitar, so into himself his eyes are closed oblivious to everything around him, his head swaying to his own internal rhythms ("..the guitar players look damaged/ they've been outcast all their lives..."). The movie charts the long slow process of the track's evolution, from the first vague chords picked out on guitar, through percussive breaks, to Marianne and Anita sharing a mic to dub on the ooo-ooo's, as Charlie stands aside disdainfully.

Then Godard adds the simultaneous dialogue overlaps that contradict and disrupt the narrative. With Sean Lynch's pseudo-William Burroughs drone standing in for the Last Poets rap on Jagger's movie Performance. Providing a voiced-over pulp novel of gangster sex, drugs and sci-fi, which contributes sound-interference in the same way that the spray-can graffiti-slogans add politically enticing word-grid equations. Mao crossed with Art. Hilton crossed with Stalin (at a time when Soviet Premiers were trendier than tacky porn-heiresses). Cine-Marxism. Sovietcong. And sequences with chapter headings such as 'Outside Black Novel' or 'Inside Black Syntax' where a black militant sits in a rusted wheelbarrow amid mounds of wrecked cars reading pseudo-profundities about 'revolutionary warfare', and 'the taking of political power' into a big reel-to-reel tape recorder. There's off-screen gunfire as they execute white hostages. Then there's a jump-cut to another unconnected sequence, an All About Eve pastoral idyll with a camera-crew stalking and interrogating a monosyllabic girl who gives yes/ no responses to "marijuana does something to the sense of time, it accelerates it"... "on LSD you begin to die," or "orgasm is the only moment when you can't cheat life." "The only way to be an intellectual revolutionary," he persists, "is to give up being an intellectual..." Switching abruptly to a garish collage of 'men's action magazines' - King, Nugget, Adam, Parade and Duke, their covers slashed with story-titles such as 'slaves of sin', 'I gave my body to Hitler' or 'the world's gooviest groupie'. They're all suspended in a tatty bookshop where purchasers give Nazi salutes...

But does it all mean anything... other than a confused image-jumble sampling confused times? What critic Philip French calls "a deliberately incoherent work" that "embraces the madness of the 1960s." And how does it relate to what the Stones were doing? It doesn't, except that the Stones' albums perform a similar function. They are counter-culture irritants. They know all about pose and intellectual games. Of course, the Stones were always sharp enough to realise that hipness equates with blackness, and they never deviated far from that principle. Clear through to their later video for Waiting For A Friend. Here it leads them into a flirtation with Black Power - the 'black united front', with guns and revolution. And within that, you can see the roots leading all the way from here to Altamont. But that's another DVD...


Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press