6 hours ago
| Vote0 0Hamilton SpectatorByPeter Howell
In C— sucker Blues, the 1972 Rolling Stones film you weren’t supposed to see, a beautiful young groupie, scantily dressed in strips of multicoloured cloth, shoots a needleful of heroin into her arm.
She smiles with satisfaction and stares dreamily into the probing lens of photographer Robert Frank, asking him, "Why did you film it?"
There’s an unspoken corollary question, hovering in the air, which the groupie intends for the audience: "Why are you watching?"
The query, which we’ll get to, leaps across the decades to our current collective online narcissism.
C—sucker Blues is undeniably the most disreputable yet arguably the most authentic rock ‘n’ roll movie ever made, a scabrous tour document that shows the Stones and their entourage shooting up, snorting and sexing their way across America during the ’72 Exile on Main Street tour.
Never officially released, heavily bootlegged for decades and still a jolt to the system after all these years, C—sucker Blues has been tied up in litigation, negotiation and general voodoo since the moment of its birth.
On Friday, Jan. 17, it gets what the program notes call "a pricelessly rare" Toronto public screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox, part of a Frank retrospective running through Jan. 20 that will include his acclaimed 1959 Beat Generation short, Pull My Daisy. Tickets for these films and the rest of the Frank retro are free, part of the Free Screen program, and available at the TIFF box office on the day of screening.
The "Why’d you film it?" question is easily answered, right there in the movie. Marshall Chess, the band’s tour manager and the film’s producer, says on camera he wanted "a dirty movie" to go with a ribald song, also called "C—sucker Blues," that the band had written to force a break from its shocked and outraged record company, Decca.
Chess got what he wanted, and then some, courtesy of Frank’s cinéma vérité style and grainy B&W and colour Super 8 film, which foregoes technical skill and good taste in exchange for quicksilver immediacy and raw honesty.
This is an artist portrait like none other, showing not only some great rock ‘n’ roll (the Stones have never sounded better), but also explicit acts of drug taking, nudity and sex performed with little thought to the consequences.
The latter includes a disturbing roadies-and-groupies encounter aboard the Stones’ tour jet, acts of wanton carnality that don’t seem entirely consensual, judging from the shrieks and forced smiles of the women. The smiling Stones provide a live soundtrack via claps, percussion instruments and shouts of encouragement.
The film apparently wasn’t what Mick Jagger thought he was getting, when he hired the Swiss-born Frank to document the Exile tour on the strength of The Americans, an acclaimed 1958 photo book, with an introduction by Beat writer Jack Kerouac, that stripped the post-War glow from quotidian images of U.S. life.
Jagger reportedly liked C—sucker Blues, an odd admission for a man so careful about his image (he’s shown having makeup applied backstage).
"If it shows in America, we’ll never be allowed in the country again," he warned Frank.
The Stones sued to prevent the film’s release, resulting in a bizarre court order that allowed it to be screen publicly several times per year, but only with Frank in attendance. The court order seems to have been lifted, or a workaround has been achieved — TIFF will only say that it’s "authorized" to show the film without the presence of director Frank, now 89 and living in rural Nova Scotia.
In any event, the pearl-clutching concern that prompted the earlier censorship is now moot.
How could anyone claim that C—sucker Blues is too ripe for the public to see when just down the road, at a multiplex near you, there are multiple daily screenings of The Wolf of Wall Street? Martin Scorsese’s film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a Wall St. financier who parties like a rock star, contains huge amounts of sexual activity and drug taking, as well as a record-high use of a certain profanity starting with "F." (The Wolf of Wall Street, incidentally, has the same Ontario 18A rating — adult accompaniment under age 18 — as C—sucker Blues.)
And it’s not hard to find C—sucker Blues on the Internet, in whole or in part, by anyone who knows how to use a search engine.
But to get back to that unspoken but certainly intended question from the needle-jacking groupie: "Why are you watching?"
What is it about C—sucker Blues that makes it essential viewing for mature film and rock fans, 42 years after the events it chronicles?
For starters, this is the best- looking and sounding version of the film I’ve ever seen. I first viewed the moviein the 1980s on a multi-generation VHS tape. The images were shrouded in a blue smear that looked as if someone had spilled ink all over them. You could barely make out who was on the screen, let alone what they were saying.
The bootlegs got better as the digital era arrived and C—sucker Blues started trading hands via DVD. But nothing can top the considerably improved print that TIFF is showing, which now allows us to see and hear such backstage acts of male bonding as Keith Richards working out concert details while Mick Jagger snorts cocaine nearby off a knife blade.
It’s great to hear the band in its prime, with Mick Taylor on lead guitar, not long before he left the group, never to return until the recent tour to mark the band’s 50th anniversary. The simple joy of making music is most evident in an onstage jam between tour companion Stevie Wonder and the Stones, segueing from his hit "Uptight (Everything’s Alright)" into their "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction."
There’s also a surprising amount of comedy in the film, which at times plays the way a Marx Brothers movie might have if Groucho had got his hands on something stronger than a cigar.
There are hilarious scenes of a glazed-looking Jagger lounging about in his white jockey briefs, trying to look cool before interviewers and before Frank’s inquiring lens. We also hear one of the Stones — is it Richards or drummer Charlie Watts? — struggling to order some fruit from a not-terribly-helpful room service waitress.
In still other scenes we see them coping with the inevitable boredom of the road: Watts staring glassy-eyed at an Excedrin TV commercial; Jagger trying to placate his unhappy new wife Bianca and coping with such celebrity gawkers as Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Dick Cavett.
The film’s funniest moment comes when Richard and saxophone sideman Bobby Keys live up to rock cliché by heaving a TV set off a hotel balcony, first responsibly making sure that no one below is in the way of the impact.
Yet it’s between the lines, cocaine and otherwise, where C—sucker Blues makes its most cogent and still-current commentary on the pervasive nature of pop culture obsession.
The Internet as we know it didn’t exist back in 1972, but Frank’s relentless camera, taking in both the totemic and the trivial, hints of the online era to come, where everyone has an iPhone to capture everything that happens and a YouTube page to show it on, whether anyone wants to see it or not.
In C—sucker Blues, Frank actually answers the groupie’s question about why he filmed her shooting up.
"It just happened," he says meekly, as the camera continues to whir, the clickety-clack of its sprockets and gears clearly audible.
Which pretty much describes how we find C—sucker Blues: a spontaneously erupting film about everything and nothing, set to a primal rock beat, that dopes us into submission even as it dares us to look away.
Full details are available at TIFF.net for the retrospective Free Screen series, Hold Still — Keep Going: Films by Robert Frank, Jan. 17-20.
Torstar News Service