In the spring of 1968, as Paris exploded in riots, Jean-Luc Godard headed across the English Channel to London, hoping to shoot footage of the biggest rock group in the world.
The Beatles said no, but the Rolling Stones were more than happy to allow the acclaimed French nouvelle vague filmmaker to set up shop in their studio and record them as they recorded their latest song.
By lucky coincidence, Mick Jagger would say years later, that song happened to be one of the best they ever would record: Sympathy for the Devil.
The resulting film – called One plus One, but recut and renamed Sympathy for the Devil by a producer concerned with commercial viability (Godard’s reaction to the recut was to punch the producer in the mouth) – is both fascinating and unwatchable all these years later.
Unwatchable because Godard intercut the Stones’ scenes with a series of overly long and boring vignettes, both obscure and politically didactic, and extraordinarily dated four decades later (although some critics would disagree).
Among the vignettes: Black Panthers read poetry and shoot white women in a junkyard; a young woman meanders through the woods, offering “yes” and “no” answers to a TV journalist asking her pseudo-intellectual questions; a woman spray-paints Marxist graffiti all over London; a fascist owner of a pornographic bookstore recites passages from”Mein Kampf” as customers give him Nazi salutes and are invited to slap two Maoist prisoners sitting in the corner of the store.
But the fly-on-the-wall scenes of the Stones working on Sympathy for the Devil remain fascinating, mostly because they show… well… the Stones working on Sympathy for the Devil, taking it from an acoustic folk song to a slow blues number to a mid-60s-Dylanesque tune to the final version we know today, complete with wild Latin beat and “woo-hoo” background vocals.
And though the song is now a comfy part of the Rock canon, its ripped-from-the-headlines quality is underlined in the film, as the lyric “I shouted out who killed Kennedy” morphs into “…who killed the Kennedys” after Bobby Kennedy is shot while the Stones are still working on the recording.
Some excerpts below: