This is the latest in a seemingly endless stream of rock biopics and archive features covering bands from the 1960s, 70s etc. The short (60 mins) documentary was shown on BBC1 last night, will be on iPlayer in the UK for the next 6 days and re-broadcast on BBC2 on Saturday 29 May. It’s certainly worth a look, not least for the still photography and home movie footage from the period.
In 1971 the Rolling Stones left the UK to go into exile in France, partly because the kind of English country house style living some of them had followed was becoming difficult to manage and partly because their finances were so messed up by poor financial management that they felt that they needed to escape the progressive tax regime of the new Labour government – Bill Wyman makes the usual completely erroneous claim that the tax rate was ‘93%’ (erroneous because the full ‘super rate’ only applied to a proportion of earnings). I’d been a big fan up until then, but lost interest in the early 1970s.
With a contractual obligation to produce an album, the Stones decided to try to make one in the South of France. With band members scattered across Provence they tried to hire various recording facilities but couldn’t find anything suitable and ended up using Keith Richard’s mansion Nellcôte in Villefranche-sur-Mer. They rehearsed and performed in the basement and recorded instruments played in different rooms in the house – with everything pulled together in a mobile recording studio truck parked in the drive. The whole process took forever but eventually produced a raw new sound which after tarting up in Los Angeles became one of their best albums, Exile on Main Street.
The documentary is both intriguing and frustrating. The montage technique of Super 8 film, black and white contact prints and hand drawn graphics used throughout the film matches the design of the eventual album sleeve and provides a strong nostalgic kick for anyone with brain cells left to remember the era. It was truly another world at that time – but perhaps only if you were in your twenties and deeply engaged with rock culture. Someone in the film argues that rock – and music culture generally – was much more dominant then and I think that is probably accurate.
The narrative of the film is confused and incomplete. We learn something about the characters and the working conditions, but not a lot about exactly why this was a ‘new sound’. In some ways the strongest statement is about the differences between the band members. Jagger is absent a lot of the time – unsurprising perhaps because he’s about to marry a pregnant Bianca. When he does turn up he is organised and more seems to get done. Bill and Charlie play up to their ‘ordinary blokes’ status and it’s sad to hear Bill whingeing on about having to import PG Tips and Bird’s Custard. They live some distance away and presumably have families. Meanwhile Keith plays the resident musical genius operating to a different biological clock and imbibing far too much of everything. His partner Anita Pallenberg is the only woman actually living in the house and seems to look after the logistics of daily life. Finally the younger men – Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, saxophonist Bobby Keyes, recording engineer Andy Johns etc. just enjoy the access to drugs, booze and girls. It doesn’t add up to much. The interest is in the snippets of information about the locals. What did they make of the Stones? France never had the same kind of rock culture – though it did have Johnny Halliday and Serge Gainsbourg. In some ways the Stones were just another bunch of wealthy Brits strutting about the Riviera where they were tolerated. Pallenberg comments that you could hear the music from the centre of the town and we see scenes indicating their celebrity attraction – but without the obsessive media intrusion they might attract in the UK or US.
My biggest disappointment was the lack of reference to the visit made to the villa by Gram Parsons. He appears in some of the photos taken by Domenique Tarlé and posted on Rolling Stone‘s website. According to an Observer article by Sean O’Hagan, Jagger was jealous of Parsons’ influence on Richards. Around this time I guess I was more interested in Gram than the Stones and I do wonder what he and Richards could have come up with if Jagger had been kept away. But, of course, that didn’t happen – Gram was “asked to leave”. The film includes various talking heads giving making fairly banal points. The likes of Martin Scorsese, Jack White and Don Was I’m sure have interesting things to say, but not here. I think what I learned most was about how the album artwork was designed and put together by Robert Frank.
The film was premiered at Cannes and the BBC screening is bookended by Alan Yentob and Mick Jagger – the latter introducing the Cannes screening in French. It was made by Passion Pictures, produced by John Battsek and directed by Stephen Kijak. According to IMDB, the film has been sold for TV around the world so you should get to see it wherever you are. Fans on IMDB are rather lukewarm. One suggests watching it with the sound turned off on the original album playing through. (The film was released to go with yet another digital re-issue of the album with 10 extra tracks.) Another suggests that at least there are clips from films that haven’t been properly released – Cocksucker Blues?