Has any major band been as diverse, film-wise, as the Stones? Like any outfit, they have a couple feel-good concert docs (Hal Ashby’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” Martin Scorsese’s “Shine a Light”). Unlike almost anyone else, they also have one feel-bad concert movie (“Gimme Shelter”). They have a sort-of, not-quite “Hard Day’s Night”-ish doc from their early years (1965’s “Charlie is My Darling”). And who else can claim they have their own Jean-Luc Godard movie (“Sympathy for the Devil,” aka “One Plus One”).
Then there’s “Cocksucker Blues.” It might be cinema’s most perfect title; that cuss-word, the nastiness — it fits it like a tight cardigan. It makes their Altamont doc "Gimme Shelter" look like an episode of "The Monkees." Also like "Gimme Shelter," it wasn't supposed to be so grim. To their already impressive arsenal of filmmakers, the Stones decided to add Robert Frank, the road warrior of the 1959 still photography classic “America." He was tasked with covering their 1972 American tour — their first sojourn to the States since 1969 and the nightmare of Altamont. Somehow the mood was even bleaker. The band had succumbed to drugs; Keith Richards had a heroin habit. Mick Jagger was convinced he would be assassinated by members of the Hells Angels, who had been awaiting his return to the scene of the crime.
If the album they were promoting, “Exile on Main Street,” is the sound of a party puttering along at 6 a.m., then “Cocksucker Blues” is what it’s like to lay awake, too drunk and stoned to sleep, trapped in the body like a zombie. The Stones wander in and out of the movie, though nobody moves much at all. It’s usually groupies and roadies laying around, getting high, getting it on with no apparent enthusiasm. Keith shoots up and Mick snorts coke, but this isn’t “Faces of Death” for druggie rockers. Ninety percent of it is far more depressing: a vision of rock stardom as a purgatory of tedium — of touring as shuffling through a labyrinth with no end, made of interchangeable hotel rooms, dressing rooms and airport terminals. Frank makes it even more nightmarish: He doesn't supply any context for what and even who we see. It’s all a bland muddle, the hopes of the ’60s sucked straight into oblivion.
No surprise the Stones were none-too-pleased with the end result. They sued it out of existence in 1977, claiming, probably rightly, that a film with filmic proof of their extreme drug use make it hard to procure visas into the U.S. They did throw Frank a bone, though, allowing him to screen it four times a year, but only with him present. (He's now 91.) "Cocksucker Blues" isn't just for the die-hardest Stones fans; it's probably far more enjoyable to fans of awesomely punishing experimental cinema. Either way, no one's gonna have a good time. And it will be beautiful.
"Cocksucker Blues" plays Thurs., Sept. 22 at 7:15 and 9:30 p.m. at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. Visit the site for more information. (Note: Both shows are sold out, but there will be a stand-by line for both.)