Directed by Robert Frank
Rock critics, like film critics, abhor a narrative vacuum. Blues begets R&B begets rock n’ roll, which begets the British Invasion, and from there, it’s a multi-pronged evolution into hard rock, glam, punk, and onwards into a million sundry subgenres. Each generation repels against their forbears and creates a new antithesis. The promising rise and the disastrous fall of whoever, precipitating the ascension of the next comers. The straight narrative throughline, complete with its obvious conclusions and waves of comforting familiarity, is the ultimate rock journalist catnip. It’s no surprise, then, that rock movies, whether narrative or documentary, straight or parodic, epic or intimate, tend towards the creation and upholding of rock and roll logic and mythos. Hell, Cameron Crowe made both a life and (most of) a career out of finding a place for himself in that mustiest of Rock Myth chronicles, Rolling Stone, then mining its Grand Narrative in forms both flagrantly opportunistic (Singles), cynically nostalgic (Almost Famous) and, occasionally, endearingly fanboyish (Pearl Jam Twenty). Even a grimy riposte like Bruce MacDonald’s Hard Core Logo couldn’t exist without having a whole history of self-important puff pieces (both filmed and written) to react against, and its fuck-it conclusion is an admission of the power of the most archetypal rock quote of all time: “better to burn out than fade away.” In the world of rock mythology, The Power Of The Music trumps all, and sweeps up uncomfortable or antithetical or banal details in its wake, leaving only hero worship, martyr fetishism, masturbatory nostalgia, and cautionary rhetoric.
Which is what makes Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues such a fascinating anomaly in terms of rock movies. Aimless and yet strangely purposeful, Frank’s banned chronicling of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 post-“Exile on Main St.” tour demolishes typical rock-crit notions about music’s “universal narratives” in favor of a startlingly frank and inclusive approach to depicting the life of a touring band at their most shamelessly decadent. Though the film has earned mythological status as the enfant terrible of rock movies, it isn’t some tabloid exposé or investigative tell-all. Frank’s camera is unobtrusive but not unsympathetic; in fact, for all of the sordid affairs he captures, the only moment that betrays an open judgment on Frank’s part is when he opts to film a roving cat instead of the dull-as-dishwater interview being taped in the same room. Tellingly, Frank doesn’t seem to have much patience for by-the-numbers journalism. His warts-and-all style, eye-catching but never ostentatious, seems to predict the likes of The Decline of Western Civilization and even Heavy Metal Parking Lot, though not nearly as pointed in its focus as either.
Though it’s ostensibly a film about the Stones, Mick Jagger gets far more screentime than the rest of his bandmates, and it’s not hard to see why. Not only is Jagger the most animated and colorful member both on and off-stage, but Jagger betrays his cinephilia – and his love of appearing on film – early and often. Within the first few minutes, Jagger grabs a camera and films himself unbuttoning his jeans and groping his crotch. At this point, he’d already starred in Nicolas Roeg’s Performance and Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly, so the Jagger who commands Frank’s eye is more than aware of his impact on the film. Despite Jagger’s ample personality, Cocksucker is never wholly defined by the man’s inestimable presence. Frank’s vision is far too panoramic for that.
Indeed, Cocksucker is not just a film about Jagger or the Stones, but also the fans, the groupies, the roadies, the starstruck nobodies on the sidelines, the scalpers, the journalists (the bored, the excitable, and the clueless), the celebrity pals, and everyone in between. Yes, there’s a lot of time spent exploring the more lurid aspects of touring life, depicted here in unusually explicit fashion – sex, coke, and heroin abound – but these scenes are grounded in the same no-nonsense approach as Frank’s time spent with expectant fans outside the venue. The excess is bracing at first – rampant full-frontal and openly visible heroin use are not exactly typical staples of the standard rockumentary – but our prolonged exposure to the endless backstage party ultimately renders the excess into a parade of banalities. Unlike so many contemporary films (and many more to come), Frank never attempts to “immerse” us in the drug users’ experience through corny filters or effects. He simply captures the acts and lets the subjects speak their minds, usually aimlessly. (Sometimes, in the case of the dope users, they just trail or doze off.) They are portrayed neither as liberated, poetic, blissed-out hippies nor as doomed human wreckage. The moments are primary here, not some unified statement about a generation’s decay. The same non-judgmental, intimate tone is taken with the scenes of extremely frank sexuality, which also linger long enough to register sublimely ordinary moments of human behaviour, like the frown on a proudly nude groupie’s face shortly after she gets a whiff of her post-coital self. Try to imagine that image making its way into Almost Famous.
Cocksucker Blues is absolutely littered with these inobtrusively captured moments of grace, and not just in the more salacious scenes. Right before a performance, Jagger exclaims a hearty “fuck you,” then begins a throat-balming warmup, complete with tuneful gargling. Without calling attention to the fact, Frank captures a profound moment of contradiction: we get the Jagger the squarer parents were so afraid would corrupt their kids, the swaggering vulgarian, followed seconds later by Jagger the professional musician careful to mind his instrument. Jagger, his bandmates, and the rest are allowed to signify both counterculture and mainstream, sometimes simultaneously. The fans, after all, range from clean-cut hotel staff to a heartbreaking young woman who claims that their music has kept her alive after the trauma of losing her daughter – ”she was born on acid” – to the state.
It’s telling that only after the fact of filming did it occur to the band that Frank’s footage might be considered incriminating or embarrassing, thus rendering the film impossible to see outside of rare repertory screenings or via illicit means. (Jagger’s aforementioned awareness of the camera had serious limits, it would seem.) The film’s forced obscurity is a shame. It deserves to be seen and appreciated not only by Stones devotees (a demographic that does not include myself) but by documentary fans and students of all stripes. Moreover, its scarcity has made it into yet another piece of Rock Myth, spoken of as a sordid exposé of the seedier aspects of the rock n’ roll success story. The truth of Cocksucker Blues, like the truth of rock history, is both much more boring and much more beautiful.
Cocksucker Blues screens for free in Toronto as part of TIFF’s Robert Frank retrospective, Hold On – Keep Going, on Friday, January 17th. Click here for more details.
— Simon Howell