“Robert Frank isn’t that interested in satisfying your expectations as a viewer,” said Anthony DeCurtis, veteran music journalist and professional Rolling Stones fan. Frank’s 1973 documentary Cocksucker Blues features what DeCurtis calls “the strongest version” of the band, touring to promote Exile on Main Street and “playing their asses off.”
It’s also a movie few people have seen.
Under the terms of a settlement between Frank and the Stones, the film, which was never officially released, can only be shown four times a year. BAM snagged two of those spots for 2016, with screenings on September 22. (While both shows are sold out, but BAM assured us that there will be standby tickets released before each screening.)
Cocksucker Blues follows the Stones on their 1972 tour for Exile on Main Street. It was supposed to be the chronicle of a comeback, the first time the band had returned to the U.S. after the disaster that was Altamont in 1969, and they hired Frank, embedding him backstage, in hotel rooms and on their tour plane, to create a documentary along the way.
Needless to say they were not pleased with Frank’s final cut.
The finished product depicts heavy drug use and sex, including Mick Jagger snorting cocaine, a groupie shooting heroin and, yes, befitting the title, blowjobs. Still, given all we know about rock and roll culture in general and the Stones specifically, how does this documentary still possess the power to shock?
DeCurtis, who for a time possessed a VHS copy of the movie, though it mysteriously disappeared from his office, he told us, argues that a film like this simply wouldn’t be made today. “When you see a rock documentary, you look at something that’s been approved, by the band, lawyers,” he said in a phone interview, speaking about the current climate in the music world.
He went on to suggest that more than wild, or even illegal antics, it’s the dull grind of backstage life that is really taboo. For a band with an outlaw reputation to uphold, scenes that show them trying to wash their clothes or staring aimlessly into space while watching television, could be just as damaging for their image, or repellent to viewers, as the drug use and group sex.
“You get these great contrasts–the Rolling Stones are staying in…the most generic hotels down South somewhere…trying to order room service and it’s not happening but then suddenly they’re in New York and there’s Truman Capote, Lee Radziwill…that rock and roll thing,” DeCurtis explained. “At one moment you’re as down and dirty as it can get, then you’re in this posh and privileged environment.”
Watching Mick Jagger do his laundry might prove to be a complete turnoff for some viewers, oddly fascinating for others. Either way, neither their fumbling attempts to order breakfast in a crappy motel, nor rampant drug abuse fit the image of the triumphant return of the biggest band in the world.
Modern viewers may also find the treatment of the band’s groupies cringeworthy, if unsurprising. “There’s such a consciousness now about consent,” DeCurtis noted of an infamous scene in which a woman on the Stones’ tour plane is lifted in the air and undressed by a crowd of revelers, despite her protests. “This wasn’t ‘may I unbutton your jeans.’”
Even if modern audiences take a been-there, seen-that stance toward a band whose outsized appetites for sex and drugs have taken on legendary status (as my editor said, “Keith Richards himself has told us about nearly every time he’s done heroin over the past 40 years, what could possibly be shocking here?) Cocksucker Blues retains its appeal partly because it’s hard to actually get to watch, but more because it captures the essence of the band in their prime.
Jesse Trussell, a programmer for BAMcinematek, agrees, writing in an email interview that the film’s power comes from its “unfiltered access to the Stones during an important period of their careers around the release of Exile on Main Street, perhaps their greatest record.” He also took a kinder view of the cinematography and direction that DeCurtis, writing that “Much of the power also comes from the direction of Robert Frank, whose keen eye for images makes the film an indelible portrait.”
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on DeCurtis’ earlier observation on how many levels of approval would be required of a tour documentary today and appreciate that the Rolling Stones thought that the best way to cultivate just the right combination of relatability and rock star chic was to let a photographer steeped in cinéma vérité and known for his unflinching observational style, hang around, shooting what he felt like. Frank left cameras scattered about so any member of the Stones’ extended band of weirdos, groupies, musicians and hangers-on could shoot footage as well. That is just a completely different approach to image, publicity and media than the highly crafted images of modern stars.
In 1973 the Stones took action against Frank after the fact. Today, there’s no way they would have allowed him to start shooting in the first place.
Cocksucker Blues will be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on September 22 at 7:15pm and 9:30pm. Tickets are sold out but there will be standby tickets released before the show. Head to the box office early–how early is up to you–and get in line.