The Rolling Stones: Sympathy for the Devil

Director: Jean-luc Godard
Year: 1968
Rating: 5.0
Country: France

Back in my twenties I had pretenses of being part of the intelligentsia which of course necessitated watching The French New Wave films, and Jean-Luc Godard in particular. So, I saw some of his more popular and accessible early films – Breathless, Contempt, Alphaville – but as he became more and more experimental, I sort of fell off and found myself more interested in genre films – as far from Godard as one can get. But when I saw that he had made a documentary in 1968 on the Rolling Stones my curiosity was piqued. I mean it is a documentary on the Stones – how could he mess that up? The Stones were at an interesting point in 1968 – coming off what many considered a misstep with Their Satanic Majesties Request in which they were trying to keep up with the Beatles and numerous run ins with drug problems. They had to find a way to put that behind them and find a new course in their music.

Godard documents the creative process behind one song that they are working on in the studio – the classic Sympathy for the Devil – and he follows their attempts over a period of a few days I think (it is difficult to track time) as the band works out the kinks of the song and gets it to where it is today. It is quite interesting to watch. And the camera does simply that – a witness from a distance – as it never interacts with the musicians – no interviews, no analysis – and the musicians never note that there is a camera there. This is Rolling Stones Classic – Jagger, Richards, Wyman, Watts and Brian Jones. The album they are working on is Beggars Banquet – in my opinion their first great album and the beginning of a run of four of the greatest albums in rock.

Jagger brings in his song Sympathy for the Devil – the lyrics and the beat he wants – and from that they slowly fill it in – the chorus, the guitar solo from Richards, the lyrics change a bit and Jagger keeps refining how he sings it. It is all work – no play – no fooling around – serious musicians making a song work. All good right? Well, this is Godard, so not really. Interspersed in all this and having absolutely nothing to do with the Stones or their recording session is some awful political pieces that may have seemed relevant back in 1968 when Revolution was in the air (though I sincerely doubt it) but watching it today it seems like pure posturing and boring as hell.

One bit has the Black Panthers in a junk yard mouthing political slogans and killing white girls, another bit has reporters following a woman around asking her questions to which she only answers yes or no and I think she is suppose to symbolize “Democracy”, Godard’s wife goes around painting revolutionary slogans all over London, there is a skit in a magazine store of comics, pulp and porno in which little girls slap men and people do the Nazi salute – and throughout the film – even over the Stones at times – a man reads from a spy novel. That stuff made up about 50% of the film. Godard just could not help being Godard.

I read that the producer took the film from Godard in the end and did two things that infuriated Godard – he titled it Sympathy for the Devil while Godard wanted to call it One Plus One – and the producer played the final version of the song over the end credits. At a film festival Godard punched the producer out. I felt like doing the same to Godard at times.