It’s hard to overstate the influence of Exile on Main Street, the sprawling rock ‘n’ roll masterwork that might just be the best record you have ever heard. Featuring swamp, blues, gospel and country all shot through with the intimacy of a world-conquering rock outfit taking a step back from the limelight, the record was like some kind of rock ‘n’ roll proving ground. The Stones poured everything they were, all they had learned in ten years of constant touring and playing, into 18 tracks. No note out of place. No idea undercooked. It was, and is, the record every rock band goes into the studio hoping to make: an honest and true statement about where they came from, who they are today, and where they might be tomorrow.
Though the tour was famously fraught with problems and poor performances – they may have been at the height of their powers, but they were also at the height of their rather heroic consumption of booze and dope, as well – there is little wrong with the stuff captured at the four shows from which this film was culled. Here we see the Rolling Stones as the band they always were (but were sometimes too pretentious or power-hungry to show us): a raunchy, rough, riff-heavy bar band with a kinetic, sexy beast of a frontman. The setlist is all winners, too – from “Dead Flowers” to “Happy” to “Gimme Shelter” to “Tumbling Dice”, this was the Stones at the peak of their songwriting genius.
Ladies and Gentlemen… The Rolling Stones – economically directed by a guy with the fairly unconventional name Rollin Binzer – was first released in 1974, but fell into a legal wormhole, of sorts. It was rarely screened thereafter, and became a much-sought bootleg on VHS for a couple of decades. Now, gratefully, fans can get their hands on a remastered and enhanced DVD or BluRay version of the film. Sound is improved, visuals are optimized, and the whole package works very well.
There are a few extras – including a surprisingly insightful interview with Jagger – but the real interest here has to be the 80-minutes of music—and the music is certainly great. Having seen the Stones a half dozen times (but only post-‘90), I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see (and hear) them as a small-scale rock act instead of the huge ungainly beast that they have become in the arena era. As good as they can be on the big stage, the energy they were able to produce in this little theatre is very nearly overwhelming. Like, if I had panties, I’d have been tossing them at the stage. Just ‘cause.
Too bad that lead guitarist Mick Taylor, though he sounds amazing, looks half asleep throughout much of the film. (Is this the reason he would soon be replaced by Ron Wood, a lesser guitarist with a mightier stage presence?) Too bad also that the sound can’t be improved any further than this, since the mix sometimes feels lopsided, especially when horn players Bobby Keys and Jim Price join the band for a few tunes. Still, as rock ‘n’ roll pictures go, it’s tough to find much to complain aboutm here. This is a plug and play type approach to the band onstage; no cameras on the crowd, few wide shots, and almost no context. Just plain old live music on film. Get your rocks off.