Friday, December 27, 2013

WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?: Martin Scorsese torches the American Dream in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET


As loaded and over the top as that word might be, it keeps popping up in my mind as the first one I’d use to describe the exhilarating, profanely funny, warped, epic, megalomaniacal acid trip fantasia, cinematic shotgun blast to the face that is Martin Scorsese’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET.

Now you all know the knock on modern-day Marty, or at least, oh let’s say, post-GOODFELLAS/CASINO nexus Scorsese.  That he stopped making personal films a long time ago.  That even though he’s arguably the most respected and lauded modern day American director, he can’t get projects made without $100 million budgets and mega-star Leo attached to them.  That he long ago resigned himself to this reality and started making prestige pictures that were essentially extended tributes to past genres and directors (the visual mini-film history of THE AVIATOR, the Val Lewton gothic horror of SHUTTER ISLAND, the silent film tribute of HUGO.)  That none of these films holds a candle to the raw power of TAXI DRIVER, MEAN STREETS, RAGING BULL.

And you might even be able to wring some truth out of those criticisms.  But hey, it’s Hollywood.  How many major directors not named Spielberg, Lucas or Cameron maintain a sizeable amount of control after their prime years?

Well critics, I’d like to introduce you to the Martin Scorsese of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, who’s taken a pre-sold property that almost didn’t feature his directing skills and molded it into an epic modern masterpiece that ranks among some of the best work of his career.  Working for the first time with lensman Rodrigo Prieto, but also once again with longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese imbues Terence Winter’s ace script with a zest and verve that feels like the work of an artist 20-30 years his junior.  Or, more accurately, like the director of GOODFELLAS and CASINO hopped up on some powerful speed. 

Remember the legendary Sunday May 11th, 1980 scene in GOODFELLAS, the manic, coke-fuelled microcosm of Henry Hill’s encroaching paranoia that serves as his last day as a truly free man?  THE WOLF OF STREET does it one better.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET does it three hours better. 

But whereas GOODFELLAS so richly chronicled the rise of Henry Hill by seducing the audience with the same enticing, erotic allure with which the mob life seduced him, before descending into the degraded personal hell of betrayal and addiction, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET marries the heady rush of Jordan Belfort’s ascent to power with that same coke binge mentality at the genetic level.  And on a literal level.

For it’s the ubiquitous white powder that fuels the lives of Belfort and his army of stock hustlers and the tone of the film.  The first half of WOLF, in particular, is an almost non-stop race to the bottom, each scene an ever-escalating master class in giddy depravity.  The cutting is as New Wave-influenced as some of the more propulsive moments of THE DEPARTED.  And the soundtrack is littered with amped up versions of classic tunes.  Ahmad Jamal’s fleet cover of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” underscores Belfort’s extravagant gift of jewelry to his wife, one of the first fruits of his newly scammed success.  Me First and the Gimme Gimmes turn Brian Wilson’s jaunty “Sloop John B” into a ferocious punk anthem for a yacht scene. And The Lemonheads’ accelerated version of “Mrs. Robinson” narrates the final bust of Belfort’s empire.  The lyrics accompanying Belfort’s bus ride to jail?  “Joltin' Joe has left and gone away.”  By the time that Devo burst into the room with “Uncontrollable Urge”, it feels almost elementary. 

And make no mistake about it: this is also some of the funniest, darkly comedic work that Scorsese has ever produced.  It’s telling that the dwarf-tossing scene that opens the picture is only the beginning of the delirious hijinks.  In the hands of the revelatory Jonah Hill (who twists his typical screen persona into a henchman straight out of Hieronymous Bosch) and the resurgent Matthew McConaughey,  Winter’s script sizzles with a comic fury.  And special mention should also be made of P.J. Byrne, who turns in a less flashy, but equally hilarious performance as Belfort aide Rugrat, a total loser who’s elevated to demi-rock star by the Jordan manual for success.

But at the heart of the insanity is Leonardo Dicaprio, who gives the performance of his career as the charismatic moral vacuum that is Jordan Belfort.  I’ve long been ambivalent about Leo, especially during his run with Scorsese.  He’s routinely shown a willingness to champion challenging projects (indeed, WOLF has been his baby for a long while), and he brings a charged intensity to most of his roles.  But he’s also tended to fall back on tired ticks and mannerisms, too often gritting his teeth and flaring his eyes to convey intensity and anger in a manner that recalls some of the worst excesses of Tom Cruise.

But in the Jordan Belfort of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, Leo has found a character whose very existence is rooted in the overly theatrical, the wildly mannered.  He’s constantly hustling the world with alpha male displays of devilish charm or thunderous pep rally speeches to the assembled troops.  Or with direct seduction of the audience, breaking the fourth wall to impart insider’s advice on the good life (and even reassuring us that, naw, we don’t really need the fine details of an IPO or how his scam works.)  Henry Hill and Ace Rothstein also spoke directly to the audience, but the former was gradually plagued by his conscience and the latter remained a fascinating emotional cipher.  But Jordan is like Don Draper living in the pitch meeting 24/7.  DiCaprio also shows himself to be a gifted physical comedian, especially in the long march to the sea that is his epic Quaalude bender near the ¾ mark of the narrative, in which he has to roll down a set of stairs, crawl into his Ferrari Lamborghini(which appears to devour him whole in one of the film’s keenest visual metaphors) and eventually lumber his way toward a choking Jonah Hill (the solution for which might be WOLF’s comic highlight.)

Damn, is the whole thing an intoxicating brew of graphic sex with models, the finest drugs that money can buy and rock rock rock rock ROCK around the clock!

The film is set on Wall Street in the past.  What does it say about the world today?
Terence Winter: How history repeats itself and how we’re not learning from our mistakes.  I mean, it’s just holding a mirror up to what’s still going on.
Martin Scorsese: It goes back to what the concept of America is.  Yes, you can have extraordinary opportunities.  But is it a place where the main opportunities are to get rich or about human rights?  Is it about a sense of freedom, a pursuit of happiness, or is it just about getting rich?
(The Hollywood Reporter/December 13, 2013)

And yet……and yet……there’s the inevitable comedown.  And the reality behind the coke dream.  The second half of the film takes on the mannerisms of the Quaalude/coke mix that begins to define the lives of Belfort Inc.  We get the hints of the slit wrists and heart attacks that claim the lives of some of the most loyal members of the entourage.  The narrative pacing grows slack, snaps back into full speed ahead, then goes slack again.

And the ultimate comedown is the realization that Scorsese and company have crafted a tale that, underneath its amphetamine frenzy surface, is a brutal indictment of the myths that we as a society have bought into.  To quote the extended trailer for DAWN OF THE DEAD: “It is a horrible, hauntingly accurate vision of the mindless excesses of a society gone mad.”  For years, America has told itself that it’s had enough of the wheeler dealers who, every decade or so, abscond with retirement investments or blow out the housing market.  And then a new generation of Gordon Gekko wannabes comes along and the plot repeats itself (to quote another film within a film from this holiday season: “Can't put me finger on what lies in store, / But I fear what's to happen all happened before.”). 

And, sadly, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET will probably be seen by some of these same people as the ultimate party movie of the decade.  In its recent profile of the real life Belfort, New York magazine hit upon this essential dichotomy: former prison mate Tommy Chong marvels at the legendary tales of excess without mentioning the lives that Jordan helped to annihilate, and the FBI agent who ultimate busted him (played by Kyle Chandler in the film) admits that even though he considers his relatively short jail term to be “a slap in the face”, he still occasionally has lunch with him (“He tells a good story.”)  We’ve come to lionize high stakes swindlers like Belfort as modern-day gunslingers, the only guys on the street with the balls to make it big (or, as today’s Jordan tells his admirers, “If you want to be rich, you have to program your mind to be rich.  You have to unlearn all the thoughts that were making you poor…”).

It’s the get rich quick fantasies of this country that enable Jordan Belfort to shoot his way to the top.  Early in the film, there’s a hilarious scene in which DiCaprio schools his new charges in the ways of how to sell a sucker rotten penny stocks by reading from the officially approved Belfort script.  It’s a hilarious bit of business, but the poor schmuck on the other end is still there, betting his mortgage on a ship that will never come in.  We may never hear from him, but the understanding is there: his life will soon go up in smoke.  The film’s dramatic payoff for Belfort, the comeuppance for his crimes, is a fairly short stay in a minimum security white collar prison where he gets to play tennis.  And a cushy landing into the motivational speaker world.  For the rules of the modern American Dream allow for the creation of suave monsters like Jordan.  He’s the spawn of our collective desire for that one last shot at glory.

In THE DEPARTED, Scorsese (along with screenwriter William Monahan) created a modern world where there is no honor among thieves.  Or cops.  Or psychiatrists.  A post-9/11 environment where deception is now the default mode.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET shows that he hasn’t drifted from his convictions.  But just like that Oscar-winning pic, it’s still one hell of a thrill ride on the road to damnation.

*UPDATE* The always erudite Glenn Kenny weighs in on some of the critical reactions to WOLF.  Sometimes, you gotta wonder...

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

See the Glory of the Royal Scam:Steely Dan explain AMERICAN HUSTLE

(SPOILERS AHOY!  Wait, does this mean that I’m nautically sensual?  Eh, lighten up Frances!)

David O. Russell’s sprawling tale of the late 70’s FBI Abscam operation prominently features Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work” over its opening credits.  And what other ‘70s musical act would be more appropriate for these proceedings than the Dan, those masterful purveyors of acid-drenched cynicism wrapped in smooth, seductive jazz rock?   So what else can Messers Fagen and Becker tell us about the inner workings of HUSTLE’s dedicated scammers?  Well kids, if you want some fun, see what you never have seen.  Take off your cheaters and sit right down.  Start the projection machine.


Irving Rosenfeld’s combover is a character unto itself.  The first shot of the film is of Christian Bale’s authentically bloated belly, but it’s directly followed by a lovingly detailed single shot of just how that Rosenfeld faux do is maintained (and boy, can spirit gum go a long way in maintaining fading male potency.)  In a film with scams of all stripes, it’s the most benign of falsehoods, but one that sets the tone for the higher stakes games soon to be played, which will be fuelled by the same sense of pure ego stroking.  And following his mirror time, Bale’s next move is a confrontation with Bradley Cooper’s permed up peacock federal agent Richie Di Maso, during which he accuses him of raiding his polyester laden closet.

Is there a modern major screen star more willing to physically commit themselves to a role than Bale?  He’s gone from insanely buff in AMERICAN PSYCHO to dangerously emaciated in THE MACHINIST to ruggedly bulky in BATMAN BEGINS.  But he’s truly abandoned any sense of aesthetic ego in his two collaborations with Russell; the rail thin, crackhead physique and receding hairline of THE FIGHTER’S Dicky Eklund and the indulgent bloat of Irving Rosenfeld are mirror images of two men consumed by their own vice.  Bale’s total immersion extends into his subtle mannerisms and lumbering physical gait.  Despite an Oscar win for THE FIGHTER, he’s still not recognized enough for the idiosyncratic career he’s forged; maybe the end of his Batman days will rectify that problem.

(“My Rival”)

(“Deacon Blues”)

And speaking of male heartthrobs willing to subvert their matinee idol looks….there’s much to commend about Bradley Cooper’s work with Russell in this film and last year’s SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK.  His live wire turn as the bipolar Pat Solitano in that film exploded the easygoing stud image that Hollywood had cultivated in most his post-HANGOVER career.  He’s ostensibly the hero of the opening salvo of HUSTLE, but as the story progresses the manic obsessive vampire within him beings to emerge.  As Richie’s wild-eyed hubris metastasizes, Cooper displays a feral quality that’s both absurd and frightening.  At heart, he’s a mediocre cop who’s too driven by Eliot Ness fantasies to realize how badly he bungles parts of the investigation; check out the giddy excitement that he can’t conceal as he’s about to bust Irving and Sydney at the beginning of the film, that same leering grin coming to the forefront again at the film’s climax when he’s about to score the most temporary of major validations by recording mob lawyer Alfonse Simone’s over the top admission of criminal guilt.  Early in the film, as their loan shark scheme begins to reach fruition, Irving and Sydney marvel at how hard marks will push against people who tell them no.  It’s also an accurate assessment of what (aside from swarthy good looks) is really Richie’s only strength as a cop: his stubborn sense of determination in the face of rejection. 

(“Only a Fool Would Say That”)

In truth, Richie’s foremost enemy is his boss Stoddard Thorsen, who, in another of the film’s sly reversals, seems to be the archetypical pencil pushing bureaucrat, but who’s later proven to be a much needed voice of pragmatism in a New York FBI office hellbent on rewarding preening egomaniacs like Richie and US Prosecutor Anthony Amado (Allesandro Nivola).  And who better to play Thorsen than that modern saint of maligned, schlubby masculinity, Louis C.K.  His befuddlement when Richie phone whips him and stares him down in a pistol packed standoff (“Come one, that’s not you” Richie patronizingly tries to reassure Stoddard, even though Richie himself is a far cry from the gunslinger persona he envisions for himself) is a thing of beauty.  And Russell once again expertly manipulates audience expectations during Richie’s post-Simone busting celebration, C.K. serving as the impotent butt of the joke in a scene that’s genuinely funny while also serving as a savage indictment of Amado’s headline chasing boy’s club (who’ve inadvertently stumbled into a fake mob attorney and a $2 million transfer into the account of the very scam artists who they’re employing.)


There’s one approximation of an innocent in the constellation of double dealing wannabes and shysters: Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the mayor of Camden, New Jersey.  AMERICAN HUSTLE treats Abscam as the great macguffin at the heart of a story about egos and broken dreams, but Carmine is the story’s true believer, striving to improve the lives of his largely beaten down black and Puerto Rican constituency and to resurrect Atlantic City the money of a faux shiek.  His political survival depends on paying tribute to the local mob dons, but in the film’s ethically gray world, it’s perhaps one of the smallest offenses.  As he heads off to reduced jailtime at the film’s conclusion, he’s a shamed good man; in voiceover, Irving testifies that the loss of Carmine’s friendship still haunts him, but he gets to walk away with Sydney at the end of the story.

(“Show Biz Kids”)

At the film’s 2/3 mark, it realizes that it needs to up the ante and muddy the con.  So bring on Meyer Lanksy’s muscle, the Miami connection Victor Tellegio.  And bring on Robert De Niro, in an unbilled turn as the mob heavy who nearly upsets Abscam’s fragile foundation.  Victor’s emphasis on getting Michael Pena’s faux shiek American citizenry in order to speed his acquisition of a gaming license makes you wonder if he crossed paths with Ace Rothstein years before.  And there’s a definite frisson in the stareoff between De Niro and Bale at the backroom meeting, two actors renowned for a commitment to abusing their good looks for film silently acknowledging one another.

(“With a Gun”)

Jennifer Lawrence’s presence as the gradually vengeful Rosalyn is one of the knottier aspects of AMERICAN HUSTLE.  Her manic intensity opposite Cooper in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK produced genuine sparks, but those two were clearly playing the misfit kids in an otherwise straight world.  Russell populates HUSTLE with lead characters who are always straddling the line between drama and absurdity, which too often makes Rosalyn stick out as a cartoonish figure.  There’s a difference between playing an annoying character and just hamming it up.  She’s given a few nice moments of levity, but her comic relief duties soon wear thin.

(“Night by Night”)

Everyone in the film feels like they’re living a lie, that they’ll do anything it takes to transform themselves, sometimes totally unaware of the irony of the new lies they’re embracing.  Irving admires Sydney for her willingness to transcend her seedy past as a stripper (which, she tells herself and the audience in voiceover, could sorta be sexy) by scamming her way into his life, while also starting himself on his road to ruin as a young man driven by the disappointment with his father’s life.  Rosalyn detests Irving’s crooked ways, still clings to the fantasy of an idealized marriage, but then later latches onto Jack Huston (mob connections and all) as her knight in shining armor.  Richie holds aspirations of being New York’s undercover crusader, but he feels trapped by his pedestrian home life with his mother and fiancée.  But his frustration with the seeming limitations of that life thrust him headlong into the manufactured allure of Sydney’s Edith Greensly persona, a front that she fully embraces to hide from her frustrations with Irving’s romantically ambivalent ways.

And how could an examination of AMERICAN HUSTLE be complete without lauding Amy Adams, who gives a gives a seductive, bravura turn as Sydney Prosser?  It’s a much more challenging role than Lawrence’s Rosalyn, but it ultimately ends up being more rewarding.  Between this film and THE MASTER, she’s shown incredible range, deftly manipulating her wholesome beauty and injecting a sharp sense of cutthroat self-preservation into it.  Whether staring into Joaquin Phoenix’s/the camera’s eye while seducing him/us deeper into The Cause or subtly oscillating between her American and British accents as she lays out her plans to Irving, she’s a serpentine presence, exuding sex appeal and menace in equal measures.

(“Time Out of Mind”)

Monday, December 23, 2013

It's Just That Demon Life Has Got Me in its Sway

Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields,
Sold in a market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver know he's doin’ alright.
Hear him whip the women just around midnight.

They are, quite possibly, the greatest set of unheard lyrics in pop history, hiding in plain sight amidst the dueling guitars of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, the steady bass of Bill Wyman and the primal drumbeat of Charlie Watts in what is one of the hallmark opening salvos in the classic rock canon.  David Simon used the covert power of these lyrics to great effect in a first season episode of THE WIRE, when perennial fuckup detective Roland Pryzbelewski used his knowledge of them as the Rosetta Stone for decoding the gangland vernacular of the Bodymore, Murdaland high rises (and as the first inkling that he was more than just a coddled twit.)  And yet, how many of the wealthy boomers rocking out in the third row of the last twenty years of Rolling Stones revival tent shows sing along to this raunchy epic of S+M slave depravity?  And how many other modern canonical songs have avoided the sabre of political correctness like this one has? Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?  Does a spoonful of sugar help the poison go down?

This opening stanza also serves as the last bit of spoken dialogue in Robert Frank’s infamous Stones documentary/debauched road trip/proto-reality show COCKSUCKER BLUES.  The words, spoken in a laconic drawl by Keith, overlay silent footage of the band mugging it up as they walk toward the stage for another night of their roisterous 1972 U.S. tour.  It’s a moment that, with several decades of hindsight, seems somewhat clichéd.  But it’s also suffused with mystery: why (aside from serving as a lead-in to the live performance of the song) these lyrics at this point in the film?  Are they a commentary on the heroin haze that permeates the previous 90 minutes of the running time?  Or just a bridge between the plaintive piano ballad that precedes it (and which is played by Mick Jagger several times throughout the film) and the final burst of music that overlaps the closing credits?

But this moment of mystery (buried at the end of a film seemingly dedicated to debunking any mystery surrounding the band….more on the results of that later) also summons the multiple layers of mystique surrounding the film itself.  Which brings up the central question: how do you write about COCKSUCKER BLUES in this day and age, after years in which the Stones have been deconstructed, lionized, de-mythologized, re-mythologized, buried and resurrected on so many occasions?  Does the film still hold its legendary power as one of the great unseen artifacts of its kind, or is it the middling rock travelogue that its critics claim?

A few weeks back, Columbus’s Wexner Center for the Arts hosted a rare screening of the film (or, rather, a Digibeta screening if it….which is about as close to film as you’ll get at this point in the movie’s life.)  For years, Frank’s long standing legal conflict with the band has forced him to limit screenings of it to events where he’s present, so the recent loosening of this restriction for certain institutions has been a boon for cinephiles.  But, as my friends and I joked before the screening, does it really matter in an Internet age in which bootlegs of the film have been available in various online locales?

The sold out audience I joined for the screening would say that the theatrical setting does still matter.  And Frank’s access to the original film materials greatly benefits this digital version.  Most of the COCKSUCKER boots heavily emphasize the ragged nature of the 16mm camerawork, but much like the late ‘90s remastering of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Frank’s official copy brings out the film’s actually strong visual palate, which is sometime lush in its mixture of color and black and white.  But aside from that, what more is there left to say about COCKSUCKER BLUES?


The most obvious reference point for COCKSUCKER is its companion documentary, the Maysles brothers’ GIMME SHELTER.  That film, long available in lovingly remastered form, remains a shorthand for the death of the ‘60s dream, the alluring march toward the damnation of Altamont.  But it also serves as a fascinating counterpoint and mirror image of Frank’s document of the band.

Even though the Maysles brothers espoused a fly on the wall, direct approach to their documentary work, GIMME SHELTER actually (inadvertently?) possesses a fairly traditional heroic narrative as its backbone.  The viewer is introduced to Mick as the conquering satyr of rock, Jumpin’ Jack Flash himself lighting up the crowd at Madison Square Garden on the Stones’ triumphal return to America.  Conflict is foreshadowed with the post-Altamont radio interviews, but the mighty Mick continues on, launching into “Satisfaction” and then tramping through hotels and recording studios, living the classic rock star life.  There are beautiful, contemplative moments in the studio and the concert halls (the humid, slo-mo performance of “Love in Vain” chief among them) to show that rock’s primo peacock also has a soul. 

But then the cracks begin to show.  The band’s desire to address accusations of ticket price inflation (insert post-modernist joke here) by holding a free concert turns into a protracted legal harangue (although hey, more Melvin Belli is never a bad thing, right?)  Midway through the film, the performance of “Honky Tonk Women” is interrupted by several fans rushing the stage, calling back to the band’s early days of ten minute performances overrun by rabid teeny boppers while also foreshadowing the black mass confrontation of the Hells Angels and the Altamont audience.  And then the hero is overcome by hubris, descending into the underworld of that tragic night at Dick Carter’s Speedway, crooning of demonic power (“Sympathy for the Devil”) and misogynistic revenge (“Under My Thumb”), fiddling while the youth of the ‘60s burn at his feet.  He escapes the conflagration, but the scars are still there: the famous final freeze frame of Mick serves as one of the most revealing portraits ever of an artist who would soon begin his long retreat into a permanently manufactured image.


COCKSUCKER BLUES, on the other hand, fully embraces the direct cinema approach in which GIMME SHELTER intermittently deals.  In many ways it’s a series of impressionistic images, wholly representative of the hallucinatory distortion that the long haul of the touring life proffers.  Whereas SHELTER opens with that electric performance of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” before pulling back to show the band watching the work print footage with the Maysleses, COCKSUCKER cuts out any of that seductive allure by opening with the band ensconced in a Spartan warehouse space, noodling away at their instruments during rehearsal.  SHELTER shows the band’s hotel time as a diversion from touring and recording, but COCKSUCKER presents that downtime as the definition of the touring lifestyle.  Indeed, one of the central ironies of Frank’s film is that the groupies, junk dealers and hangers on are far more immediately interesting than Mick, Keith and the boys.  Hotel time brings out an inevitable sense of boredom in the band, but it’s the gateway to fame for the unnamed girl who shoots up in graphic real time. 

As time loses any sense of meaning for the band and the viewer, the rot starts to set in.  It’s long been theorized that the film’s infamous airplane sequence, in which nude groupies are the centerpiece of the dream of bacchanalia that the hardcore fans interviewed in the film must have dreamt of, was more a case of playing for the cameras than a wholely accurate representation of that day’s flight.  Later in the film, an entire sequence is devoted to another nude groupie, spread eagle on a hotel bed, her supple body covered in streams of an ambiguous white liquid (which, unless we’re dealing with superhuman lover, has to be either shampoo or lotion….but yeah, you get the picture) as she and her friends get high.  Mick Taylor ambles in for a toke, but he’s merely wandering through another night of faux orgies.  And the film’s first non-performance image of Mick is of him filming himself groping his own crotch in the mirror.


Maybe that’s the easiest way to understand the GIMME SHELTER/COCKSUCKER BLUES relationship.  SHELTER is Mick’s show all the way, while COCKSUCKER’s bluesy, drug-fuelled tone embodies the elegantly wasted cool that Keith was then patenting, the image that he would ride for years to come.  What directly precedes Mick’s autoerotic tomfoolery?  Why, it’s Keith practicing a song on the piano.  In capsule form, these would be the iconic poses that would come to define both men from that point on: Mick as the shallow showman/tart, Keith as the authentic bluesman and heart and soul of the band.  Taken together, the two films are the Glimmer Twins of the rock doc world; no Stones film since then has so accurately captured who the band were and what they would become.

And the seeds of the future of the Rolling Stones are planted deep within COCKSUCKER BLUES, at least for those familiar with the personal lives of rock’s great pirates.  Around the 45-minute mark, there’s a famous shot of a clearly intoxicated Keith nodding off in the lap of his female companion backstage, while Mick chats up Atlantic Records guru Ahmet Ertegun in the adjoining room.  Here are those dueling images of foreshadowing again: the stoned erraticism of Keith’s encroaching heroin addiction contrasted with Mick’s cold business pragmastism. 

But maybe those shots aren’t the most indicative of where the Stones would be headed.  Maybe what comes next is the real key.  Because following that backstage tableau comes a rare moment of relatively tender silence: a brief music box-scored montage of Bianca Jagger, who accompanied Mick on parts of the tour.  The accepted narrative of the Stones legend (which Keith goes out of his way to perpetuate in his recent autobiography) is that once Bianca entered the picture, Mick became wildly enamored of the jet set lifestyle and lost his way as a true musician.  It’s not certain if Frank intended to buy into this incipient story with his portrayal of Missus Mick, but her supporting role serves as stark contrast to the scene in which the Glimmer Twins sit side by side on a hotel bed breaking down a test pressing of the “Happy” single.  Seen in 2013, it plays as one of the last moments of true friendship between Mick and Keith, before the drugs and the money and World War III and “Brenda” and corporate sponsorship of tours irrevocably severed the bond that joined two young blues fans in early ‘60s London.


There’s one sequence in COCKSUCKER that fully captures the thrill of seeing the Stones in the early 70’s, and it has nothing to do with wild sexual exploits or finding mainlines.  As opening act for the tour, the then-ascendant Stevie Wonder often joined the band for the night’s final number, a stirring medley of “Uptight” and “Satisfaction”.  It’s in capturing one of these performances that the film reaches its riotous, ecstatic peak, both bands racing towards a soul-drenched climax of giddy elation.  It’s a perfect ending for a document of the Stones at the peak of their powers.

Except that this one-two punch arrives with nearly a half hour left in the film.  There’s no easy dramatic ending here, only the continuing orgastic grind of the tour.  The actual end of the film comes with “Street Fighting Man” the band’s traditional closer since the ’69 tour.  In this setting, it’s technically proficient, but it smacks of the routine, providing none of the transcendent thrills that Stevie and the boys provided.  It also serves as a callback to its final performance in GIMME SHELTER, itself a degraded version of the Madison Square Garden performance, as Mick’s playful tossing of the basket of rose petals to that audience is replaced by a Hell’s Angel heaving the entire basket into the beaten down crowd.  But then again, maybe all of this is entirely appropriate for a song whose ambiguous commitment to revolution has always served as somewhat of an indictment of the patented Rolling Stones ethos of rebellion.


But all of this eventually loops back around to that initial question: what role does COCKSUCKER BLUES play in this modern media-saturated culture?  In one way, it’s entirely reflective of our times, as nearly everyone in the film is recording each other.  The natural questions of authenticity persist throughout; how much of what the Stones show to Frank and his cameramen is played up for the lens?  It’s appropriate that the ’72 tour marked the debut of a new lighting rig for the band, one which heavily relied on a large panel of mirrors positioned above the stage to reflect and amplify their illumination (Frank includes several shots of the band’s reverse images in them.)  And once you go down this rabbit hole, you get into matters of performance wrapped within performance wrapped within performance…..

Even the restricted nature of the film’s public performances has been neutered.  Because you’ve probably seen more of COCKSUCKER BLUES than you think.  A few days ago, I happened upon a repeat screening of Bret Morgen’s HBO Stones doc. CROSSFIRE HURRICANE, which chronicles the band from their inception to roughly around the beginning of the Ronnie Wood years.  I’d seen it when it debuted, but watching it again I was struck by the fact that right there, hidden in plain sight at the film’s outset, is the first ten minutes or so of COCKSUCKER BLUES.  The Stones conducted interviews with Morgen, but refused to be filmed, so CROSSFIRE draws heavily on COCKSUCKER, GIMME SHELTER and other pre-existing footage.  But it’s still striking to realize that one of the most famous bootlegs in rock history is living way more of a public life than its reputation would herald. 

But still, the allure continues.  Even in music-mad Columbus, 300 people don’t just show up for a film that they could watch online.  They realized what many other still do: that in a culture where seemingly all of history is now available at the click of a mouse, there’s still a rush in the shared experience of collectively viewing what might have been the last gasp of rock’s greatest avatars of cool.  Sometimes myths are just that damn powerful.