Sympathy For The Devil & Performance
1968 was a year of turmoil. In April, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis. In May, disquiet with French President Charles de Gaulle’s policies erupted into violence on the streets of Paris. In June, US presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated after winning the Californian primary. In August, Soviet troops rolled into the streets of Prague to crush the efforts of Czechoslovakian radicals to liberalise the Soviet-influenced Czech government. Two months later, US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the dais at the Mexico City Olympics to symbolise solidarity with the Black Power cause.
In London, the English political and social establishment was still struggling with the influence of the counter-cultural movement. The bête noir of the establishment, The Rolling Stones, had entered the studio in the first half of 1968 to commence the recording of what would become Beggar’s Banquet, released eventually in December 1968. Opening with the potent Sympathy for the Devil – in which Jagger assumes the part of Lucifer, surveying the remains of history – Beggar’s Banquet would, possibly subconsciously, capture the zeitgeist of the time, as the Western world migrated from the wide-eyed hope and optimism of the Summer of Love to the murderous events of Altamont and the Manson killings in 1969.
French filmmaker Jean-Luc Goddard had escaped from the violence of Paris in May 1968 to arrive in London. Goddard’s obsession with politics saw him intent on creating a film that would convey the turbulent political environment of the time. Goddard ensconced himself in the studio with The Rolling Stones, capturing the evolution of Sympathy for the Devil in the hands of the Rolling Stones. Goddard would splice scenes featuring the reciting of Black Panthers texts, Marxist iconography and a dramatic exploration on the nature of democracy and revolution. Originally titled One Plus One – Goddard’s reason being that ‘one plus one does not always equal two’ – the film charts the development of the title song; Goddard’s insistence that the completed song not be included was ignored, causing him to dismiss the final cinematic product (the ‘director’s cut’ of the film would be eventually released many years later).
Around the same time, Jagger was approached to appear in his first dramatic role in Performance, the gangster-cum-psychedelic piece co-starring James Fox and Anita Pallenberg, the Swedish model who’d left the floundering Stones guitarist Brian Jones for his charismatic band mate Keith Richards. Jagger largely played a version of himself, a reclusive rock star encountered by Fox, the latter escaping from a violent altercation with Anthony Valentine. Unsure what to make of the film, Warner Brothers sat on the film for another two years before releasing it in 1970; bootleg outtakes of the sex scenes between Pallenberg and Jagger (long alleged to be genuine) would surface in continental Europe in the ‘70s.
This month, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image will screen both Sympathy for the Devil and Performance as part of its Long Play program. ACMI programmer Robert Ciabarra came relatively late to both films, though had long been aware of the films’ reputation and influence. “When I first saw Sympathy for the Devil, I knew I wasn’t going to see a straight forward music documentary,” Ciabarra says. “As I was watching it, I realised I should stop expecting it to make sense, so I let myself off the hook in that respect. Goddard’s films are much more of a provocative statement.”
Sympathy for the Devil is both a frustrating and a revealing film. Goddard is intent on illustrating the turbulence of the contemporary political and social environment; The Rolling Stones exemplify that upheaval. As a political statement, Sympathy for the Devil, with its heavy reliance on Marxist discourse as a vehicle to explore meaning and language, is of its time. As an artistic statement, the film is complex and unique. “I think with Goddard art and politics are inextricably linked,” Ciabarra says. “He was very much interested in politics at the time, and within a month of the Paris riots he was in London to film The Rolling Stones, but I’m not sure what came first – The Stones in the studio, the writing of the song or the vignettes concerning the construction of language, yet they all come together to explore meaning.”
Performance, on the other hand, is a comparatively straight-forward film, blending West End gangster narrative with rock’n’roll styling and counter-cultural narrative. While Jagger was the focus of publicity for the film, James Fox – a classically trained actor typically featured in upper-crust roles – is pivotal to the film. “At the time, the publicity was all about Jagger,” Ciabarra says, “but James Fox was insistent about playing the character of Chas, which wasn’t the sort of character he was known for playing.”
Ciabarra says Jagger’s performance in the film is more than commendable, despite his limited training and preparation. “I think that role has to be Mick Jagger in order for you to be watching the film,” Ciabarra says. “It plays on his duality as a gangster and a rock star. And I think Jagger brings a certain conviction to the role – it works for me, as I think it works with the next film he did, which was Ned Kelly which was filmed out here a couple of years later.”
As for whether both Sympathy for the Devil and Performance capture the mutation of optimism into dispair, Ciabarra agrees it’s possible to see that with benefit of hindsight. “There must have been pessimism in the air, and May 1968 must have been a notable period. The naive optimism had been well-trampled by then.”
BY PATRICK EMERY
Sympathy for the Devil screens at ACMI until Wednesday May 30.Performance screens at ACMI on Saturday May 26 and Sunday May 27. Check out acmi.net.au for more information.