Is there anything left to discover about the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n Roll Band? A half-century into their seemingly interminable career, the answer would seem to be no. How many more times can we marvel at Jagger’s Jack LaLanne-ish vitality – as I did two years ago while watching Shine A Light—or snicker at Keith’s leathery decrepitude?
Apparently, however, MVD Visual is betting that the band’s legions – no, generations of devotees - still hunger for more behind-the-scenes tidbits, as they’ve released this The Rolling Stones: Rare and Unseen on DVD. It isn’t a concert film, nor should it be, as the Stones have at least eight(!) of such under their belts, surely a record no other artist can match.
This non-performance documentary – and the group has notched a few of those as well – contains over an hour of assorted clips, most allegedly not widely seen before. The footage isn’t limited to a particular era, but instead spans decades, from their early years of seducing Britain’s teen populace while scandalizing the starchy establishment to the middle-aged mega-stardom of the ‘80s onward. Refreshingly, there’s no chronological linearity in the film, so it’s impossible to predict what will come next, although that may be maddening to some viewers.
Scenes of the 20-something Stones, captured incessantly by BBC TV, are rendered in black-and-white, and we see a fresh-faced, pouty-lipped Mick, a vaguely androgynous figure who wouldn’t look out of place in the lightly-scented front pages of Vanity Fair, or a Merchant/Ivory drawing room drama, for that matter. His wavy tresses still notably short, one feels an aura of innocence surrounding him, holding at bay the flamboyant satyr Michael Phillip Jagger would become. It’s easy to understand his initial puppy dog cuteness to young women – and perhaps a few males – of that period. Indeed, the film reveals that fan adulation was at its hysterical peak during their formative years.
Of course, the star-crossed Brian Jones is also presented, and it seems odd now that this pasty, unassuming man was the centerpiece of the Stones, that the quintet was originally perceived as his band, but that was the group’s beginning configuration. Following his untimely and still-mysterious death in 1969, Jones was supplanted by the estimable Mick Taylor, whose expert strumming enlivened Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street, and the stellar 1970 live disc Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, not bad work if you can get it. Taylor appears twice in the film, as a boyish, teen idol-like youngster stepping aboard for the band’s legendary 1969 free concert in London’s Hyde Park, a putative tribute to Jones, and later reminisces about his short but dazzlingly productive stint with the Stones, a tenure which produced some of their sharpest material.
The Rolling Stones have never been strangers to controversy, but “Rare and Unseen”, unfortunately, skirts the group’s darker episodes, although it does include an interview in which Jagger and director Julien Temple defend the band’s 1983 video for “Undercover of the Night”, which features a hooded captive being shot through the head at point blank range by a soldier. Many viewers felt the promo glamorized violence at a time when films and television shows were amping-up carnage, and its multiple airings on then-exploding MTV only reinforced the perception that the network was a wellspring for cinematic bloodletting.
Although the Stones probably racked up more film footage than any other musical outfit in history, they never dabbled in narrative cinema, with the exception of Jagger, who has appeared in several movies since his 1970 debut in Nicholas Roeg’s eccentric Performance, and he discusses his film work with veteran host and musician Jools Holland. In the early ‘80s, Jagger was slated to appear in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, but that deal came apart, and he concedes to Holland that he’s had difficulty finding the “right sorts of films”, a problem exacerbated by the Stones’ hectic schedule. We later see the band at the glittery Berlin Film Festival, accompanied by Martin Scorsese, and despite Keith Richards’ splashy turn as Captain Sparrow’s paterfamilias,sending up his own image as a weatherbeaten old sod, one realizes that the group’s cinematic legacy is restricted to the concert stage.
Though occasionally engrossing, The Rolling Stones: Rare and Unseen is a must only for dyed-in-the-wool fans, and even they may wish there was more music in the doc; one wonders if that was a tangled rights issue there. It’s also unhelpful that no dates are ever mentioned for the clips we see, so the viewer is left to speculate. The film presents a lifetime of interviews, and I chuckle slightly while noting how various members, including Jagger, have aged, looking rather craggy and gaunt-faced as they slide into – dare I say – their elderly years.
Drummer Charlie Watts, unlike some of his bandmates, has allowed his hair to go snowy, perhaps appropriate as he has suggested that he’s ready to pack it up whenever the Glimmer Twins give the go-ahead. Watts has always nursed a greater affection for jazz – he’s seen browsing in a Shaftesbury jazz record shop—while nonetheless enjoying a lifetime in rock most can only dream of. Could it be that he’s more comfortable with his advancing age than his flashier comrades?
The Stones doc most fans are still yearning for is 1972’s Cocksucker Blues, and a few minutes of that now-legendary flick are included in the high-zoot re-release package of “Exile”. Though many who have seen it consider it tame by today’s standards, it apparently frightened the band at the time of its production, and their attorneys had it summarily banned, a prohibition which still stands, with scant exception. While The Rolling Stones: Rare and Unseen is mildly diverting, Cocksucker Blues looms over it like a dismissive specter.