Robert Frank’s Messy and Singular Rolling Stones Documentary

A controversial film about the band directed by the late photographer is an off-kilter masterpiece that reveals his singular eye.

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There’s a scene in Cocksucker Blues where a member of the Rolling Stones’ entourage—traveling aboard the band’s private jet, amid the utmost in rock-and-roll decadence—reads a copy of Ernest Callenbach’s 1972 self-help book, Living Poor With Style. It’s just one of many moments of cognitive dissonance portrayed in the documentary, which was co-directed by Daniel Seymour and the photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, who died Monday at the age of 94. If the marks of a good documentary are cohesion and a sense of sympathy, Cocksucker Blues is terrible: It’s jumpy, fragmentary, skewed, and self-negating, and it undermines its own authority almost every chance it gets. “Except for the musical numbers, the events depicted in this film are fictitious, no representation of actual persons and events is intended,” reads the disclaimer at the start of the movie. A fictitious documentary? As conceits go, it’s a brainteaser.

Cocksucker Blues, however, isn’t terrible, despite Frank’s visual deconstruction. Rather, it’s his off-kilter masterpiece, one that thrives on paradox. Filmed in 1972 while the Stones were touring in support of their legendary album Exile on Main St., the movie reflects, in its own oblique way, the dishevelment at the heart of Exile’s music while building a cinematic vocabulary of its own. Audio of concert recordings is thrown over vérité footage of the band and their hangers-on goofing around, baring their asses, shooting up, having sex. Canted angles careen and clip. Virtually every other frame is a gorgeous portrait of the perpetually shirtless Stones. Still, Frank demystifies rather than mythologizes Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, knocking them down a peg from their Dionysian perch.* These Stones are mortal, fragile, grubby, sloppy, and seedy. Jim Jarmusch called Cocksucker Blues “definitely one of the best movies about rock and roll I’ve ever seen … It makes you think being a rock ’n’ roll star is one of the last things you’d ever want to do.”

That’s doubtless part of the reason the Stones initiated legal action against Frank to block the release of Cocksucker Blues in 1972, which led to an unusual arrangement whereby the film could be shown four times a year, and only with Frank in attendance. The band couldn’t have taken offense at the title—it was drawn from one of Jagger’s own salacious compositions, albeit an officially unreleased one—but rather objected to the entire over-the-top nature of the film. The Stones evidently wanted to be seen as outlaws, but only inasmuch as they could control and contain that image. In addition to showing a less savory side of the Stones than they might have preferred, Cocksucker Blues isn’t aurally flattering. It’s an undercooked feast for the ears, full of incidental, ambient sounds: scraping, scratching mumbling, full of the noises that are usually edited out of documentaries, or professionally avoided in the first place. But as with the visuals, there’s a method to Frank’s sonic madness. Passages of sound collage dissolve into visceral concert recordings, including a searing onstage performance with Stevie Wonder as the band’s guest. If vanity was at play in the Stones’ decision to ban the movie, they did themselves a disservice. (Upon Frank’s death, though, the band did issue a glowing statement in remembrance.)

In addition to allowing Frank to film them for a documentary, the Stones chose as the cover of Exile an outtake from The Americans, Frank’s pioneering 1958 book of photography. The latter is a tour de force of the quotidian, the everyday elevated to the grace of classicism. Stunning contrasts between blacks, whites, and washes of gray render light itself as an object of contemplation. And Frank’s human subjects are imbued with the nobility of statuary. That said, there is no living poor with style in The Americans; there is only realness, illuminating and shadow-draped all at once. The book, resonant with the Beats and containing a preface by Jack Kerouac, helped establish the sensibility and visual language of the emerging counterculture. Frank was there at the beginning of what eventually became the hippie movement, and he was there to capture its decline as emblematized by the Stones. It’s telling that of all of Frank’s pictures that Jagger and company could have chosen for the cover of Exile, they picked a grid-like collage of circus performers and carnival freaks titled Tattoo Parlor that makes its inhabitants seem caged.

“There are too many images, too many cameras now,” Frank once told Vanity Fair. “We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art anymore. Maybe it never was.” As cynical as that sentiment sounds, there’s a strident idealism at the heart of it. Frank pioneered the use of the photograph—both still and moving—as a means by which to document the ephemeral, the transgressive, and the uncomfortable as well as the beautiful. He knew that careful composition could bring about the most naturalist state, and that the lens can find truth not just in the spectacular, but also in the mundane.

One of the most arresting scenes in Cocksucker Blues doesn’t involve the Stones at all. At one point, Bianca Jagger, then Mick’s wife, sits with an unreadable expression on her face as she smokes a cigarette and plays a music box on repeat. Here, Frank’s eye for symbolism is at its sharpest. Planted at the heart of the Rolling Stones’ hedonism machine yet estranged from its more extreme debauchery, she tries to find some level of comfort in her music box, the only sound-making object that she can definitively control—and that won’t desert her on a whim. It’s a profoundly poignant moment in the film, and it embodies all that’s great about Robert Frank’s simultaneously iconographic and iconoclastic image-making. The world is full of beautiful pictures, Frank seems to be saying, but art is still what we choose to see.

* This article originally misstated that Ronnie Wood was a member of the Rolling Stones in 1972.