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.”