Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones
(Eagle Rock Entertainment)
If “everybody got to go,” where are they? Jagger’s the only Stone I see going. A little Keith, Jagger, Charlie’s profile, Jagger, Mick Taylor’s hands, Jagger Jagger Jagger, a glimmer of Bill Wyman’s silhouette, repeat. Only, while repeating, ignore Bill Wyman for three songs in a row. The glories and problems of this then-groundbreaking 1974 legendarily-delayed concert documentary leap off the screen in the first 30 seconds of the first song. The problems are, in order of severity: 1) Mick Jagger’s inescapable face and/or ass and 2) the peevish indifference on Mick Jagger’s face. The glories are 1) the Rolling Stones live in 1973 at the absolute height of their powers, which includes: 2) Keith singing his guts out through blackened rotting teeth while chopping riffs with the authority and posture of a figure on a Tarot card; 3) Mick Taylor: ungodly guitar genius plucking blues lines of unsung poetry and viscera in pretty much total on-stage darkness; 4) Charlie Watts wearing a shirt stolen from Carmen Miranda; 5) Keith proudly slashing away—all he cared about was his special tuning system and the capo that made it work.
On most songs, the lack of engagement—the sheer “must I be doing this again?” look—on Mick’s face proves shocking, and not a little dislocating. It’s inescapable, given how myriad and monumental Jagger’s close-ups turn out to be. Sharing a mic with Keith—as in Keith’s Happy—Jagger suddenly wakes up and appears to be enjoying himself. Remember—this was 37 years ago, and the Stones still tour; if Jagger could barely get it up then, when the Stones were the best live band in the world, how indifferent must he be today? The film’s priority—to convince us that the Stones exist to back up Jagger—manifests during the first verse of Happy. At the time, that was a revelation: Keith sings! And harrowingly well. So the band plays the opening riff, Keith steps to the mic and we cut to Jagger’s ass. And hold on said ass throughout Keith’s singing. When Keith finally gets his close-up during the second verse, we cut to Jagger, stage right, mouthing along with the lyrics. Lordy, it’s discouraging. We know Jagger’s an unquenchable and dissatisfied egoist. But we might have thought, or hoped, that 37 years on he could be willing to share an instant of the spotlight. Never happens, though, and a great opportunity goes wasted.
Upon its release, the film was regarded as a post-Warholian experiment: no crowd reactions, no cutaways, no nothing but the band onstage, using super-long lenses from the back of the hall to capture faces and figures with heretofore unseen intimacy. That style once wielded enormous power, and in 1974 it proved a forceful rejection of the dominant concert-film tropes, which included crowd reaction shots aplenty and endless close-ups of flashing fingers on the fretboards. Sad that this vesting in reductivism now reads like pure indulgence. Which is not to say you shouldn’t see it—you should, if only for 1) the acoustic version of Sweet Virginia, when Jagger blows harp with unfeigned yearning and Taylor picks his brains out and 2) the ol’ warhorse Midnight Rambler, which all these decades later still demands to be played deafeningly enough to piss off the neighbors and rattle the plates in the cupboard. It also brings to mind Keith’s great line about Jagger. After asserting that Jagger was an underrated master of the harmonica (true), Keith said he wished Jagger could just once sing like he blows harp. So do we all.