Robert Frank seems to have had a pattern of producing work that breaks through the gloss of romance imposed by culture on his subjects. His now-famous photograph book The Americans was derided by critics and had extremely poor sales due to its unflinching portrayal of American small-town life as empty and lonely, with a huge gap between the promises of wealth and the poverty of the lower classes.
The book was first published in France, because Americans simply did not want to confront the reality Frank was portraying. Cocksucker Blues (1972), a film that the Rolling Stones commissioned Frank to make about their life on the road in America, had an even more drastic fate. Its depiction of life on tour was such that the Stones had the film banned, and it was officially available to screen only once a year in Frank’s presence. But bootleg copies (of varying terrible quality) have circulated for decades, and now that everything is available on the internet, Cocksucker Blues is no exception. During its years of existence as an almost impossible-to-find bootleg, the film acquired notoriety for its portrayal of drug use and sex. However, it was not this that caused the film to be banned; those scenes are neither as excessive nor as offensive as they have been described in legend, and could have been edited out had the Stones opted for a public release. The true reason the film was banned was that the Stones didn’t want to break down romantic ideals of a glamorous rock star life. They were afraid that their audience, like the early readers of The Americans, could not stand the truth being presented so unflinchingly.
When we think of the lives of famous musicians, we probably think of constant excitement, music, sex, recreational drug use, creativity, and happiness. No one wants to think of depression, boredom, pressure, shame, and drug-induced raving, but this is exactly what Robert Frank captured with an accuracy that proved fatal to his work. If even now we still live under the delusion of glamour about the lives of rock musicians, it is easy to imagine how much greater the illusion was during the 1970s. What people wanted (and want even now) of a concert movie or band documentary is a glimpse into another, completely separate and fascinating world. In Cocksucker Blues, we get that glimpse, and the world we see might be very different from the everyday, but not in an inviting way. One aspect that distances the movie from its audience is probably unintentional; over the years of increasingly deteriorating videotape transfers, the quality has eroded to such an extent that the picture quality (combined with the handheld camerawork) resembles that of an old silent movie (we’re talking 1910s at most.) Even the parts shot in color look like early experiments with three-strip color and filters. This gives the illusion of a world as far from the ordinary in terms of lifestyle as we are (or the audience in the 1970s were) from the silent era.
Boredom predominates the entire film. The tour unfurls as an endless, excruciating road trip, in the dullness of which all attempts at diversion are swallowed up. The Stones and their entourage are depicted as pointlessly indulging in sex and drugs, but are bored with all of it, especially the band themselves. Mick Jagger, who is frequently the center of the camera’s attention, never shows any emotion offstage. He lounges around, eyes unfocused and dull, not a single smile or sign of interest or excitement. He even manages to look bored while taking cocaine. The band are clearly exhausted by the excess; they regard the road crew’s sexual antics with casual indifference, unfazed and uninterested by the scantily clad or naked groupies surrounding them. They have progressed beyond decadence to utter dissipation. They have clearly not become comfortable with media attention, but have merely become bored with it. The radio interviews and reports about the band that appear in the movie label them in extravagant and outrageous terms (such as “the Lucifer of rock”), showing the ridiculous pressure the Stones, especially Jagger, find themselves under. The depressed state of the band is in stark contrast to footage of fans waiting for the show; they are happy, excited, making faces at the camera, screaming, and laughing.
The only scenes where the band exhibit any excitement (or emotion at all) are the performances and rehearsals. They were shot mostly in color, as opposed to the black and white of the rest of the footage, and are electrifying in their jarring contrast to the endless ennui they are embedded in. Mick becomes an excited, hyperactive whirlwind of dancing, shedding glitter from his hair, smiling, laughing, and gesticulating. Even when he faces away from the crowd to look at drummer Charlie Watts, the smile doesn’t fade. The transformation seems as incredible as seeing a statue spring to life. Here for the first time the band are enthusiastic and unrestrained. Curiously, they become much like the audience, just there for a good time rather to put on a show; everyone in the entourage and the opening band gets onstage, just to dance if they don’t have an instrument, and wind up having a confetti fight.The agreement with Robert Frank was apparently that he could film anything he wanted. If anyone told him to stop, he would walk away from the project. While this allowed for the glaring honesty of the film, there are clearly scenes where the camera is not welcome, such as when Mick and Keith are about to take cocaine before going onstage and dart resentful, defiant glances at the camera until it finally moves away. Frank was not the only one shooting; some of the footage was filmed by the road crew or the band themselves. The shakiness of the cinematography conveys an impression of the immediate presence and even participation of the person behind the camera in the events.
|Overexcited fans waiting to see the Stones|
It is not fair to blame the Stones for banning the film; they wanted the movie of their first tour of America since the disastrous Altamont Festival (the subject of Gimme Shelter) to be an upbeat affair and to repair the damage to the band’s image. Cocksucker Blues was hardly a good candidate for that, and even if they had felt secure enough to allow their audience to see that side of their lives, 1972 was not a good time to do that. However, it is unfortunate that this film had to be a fatality of the Stones’ quest to improve their image.
|Keith Richards and a groupie backstage|