Review – Cocksucker Blues

by allan tong for FILMbutton

In the age of YouTube, celebrity sex videos and reality TV, can a rock movie still shock? With a title like Cocksucker Blues, you’d imagine that this verite documentary about The Rolling Stones’ 1972 U.S. tour would.

Backstory: Three years after the horrifying free concert at Altamont (brilliantly captured by the Maysles brothers in Gimme Shelter), the Stones returned to the States to support their album Exile On Main Street. The Stones were at their peak right before Keith Richards’ heroin habit plunged the band into their dark, bland period. Peace and love were dead. Charter airplanes and limos were in. The Stones hired photographer Robert Frank to design the Exile cover and to document the tour on handheld 16mm cameras like the proverbial fly on the wall. Frank was renown for his unapologetically gritty look at American life in the bland Eisenhower 50s, and that style informs Cocksucker Blues.

Frank captures lead guitarist Mick Taylor taking a hit off a joint, Mick Jagger briefly snorting coke and Keith Richards nodding out after a show, presumably after snorting smack. Those moments are tame compared to the band’s roadies (and Frank’s own soundman) who screw groupies on airplanes and in hotel rooms, and shamelessly shoot heroin before the camera. The Stones, who commissioned Frank, saw the finished film, were frightened by its rawness, and forbade the director from exhibiting it. Frank fought back in court which allowed him to screen Cocksucker Blues only five times a year, often with him present.

The 89-year-old director won’t be at the TIFF screening this Friday evening. TIFF is honouring Frank with this free exclusive screening as well as screening his far more conventional short documentary, Pull My Daisy (1959) celebrating Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets as part of one of the shorts programmes over the weekend. The last time Cocksucker Blues was publicly screened in Toronto was the summer of 1996 at a discreet showing at the El Mocambo (which is another chapter in the Stones legend) from a high-res Japanese bootleg VHS tape.

So how bad is Cocksucker Blues? In 1972, it was shocking when American radio wouldn’t play a song entitled “Bitch.” Today, in 2013, the movie is tepid. Can the Stones threaten audiences after we see former Disney idol Miley Cyrus cavort like a stripper on national television, or we download photos of Amy Winehouse smoking crack? And these are the Stones after all, the original Bad Boys of Rock who have grown up to be rich granddads married to supermodels.

Society’s values and tolerance have shifted in the last 32 years. However, they don’t detract from the quality of Cocksucker Blues. This is a good movie. Sure, it captures the debauchery backstage on a giant rock tour, but it also show us the sheer tedium of life between gigs and the claustrophobia of living in a suitcase. (The film’s title itself is an original recorded blues which was the Stones’ way of saying fuck you to Decca Records in 1969 before they launched their eponoymous record label).

Unlike any rock doc out there, Frank’s movie is largely shot in black-and-white off-stage and explodes in grainy colour for all the concert sequences. The juxtaposition is jarring and powerful. One minute the band is shooting pool in some greasy spoon in the south or playing poker in a hotel room, the next they rip into Brown Sugar at full throttle. The performances crackle and jolt. Mick and the boys are in top form, and I would say their best ever. The showstopper is the medley of Superstition by opening act, Stevie Wonder (also at his peak), into Satisfaction. It’s a party onstage and an arena full of fans is singing along.

My only disappointment with Cocksucker Blues on the big screen is that the film has not been remixed or restored. It unspools in a 4×3 aspect ratio with grain and dust on the celluloid, and the soundtrack plays in tinny mono, just like films were shown in the 70s.

I’m sure that one day Cocksucker Blues will get the 5.1 home theatre treatment, and actually I’ll be disappointed. In an X-rated world, few mysteries tantalize. However, this Friday at TIFF moviegoers will get a genuine opportunity to taste a forbidden treat.

Allan is a Toronto filmmaker, co-directing Leone Stars, a documentary about child victims of the Sierra Leonean civil war.

Comments are closed.