She loved the washed blue light of the film, a kind of crepuscular light, a tunnel light that suggested an unreliable reality … a subversive reality, maybe, corruptive and ruinous, a beautiful tunnel blue (Don DeLillo, Underworld).
We have recently obtained one of very few contemporary, theatre-quality prints of what is surely the most famous, or notorious, unseen film of all time, Robert Frank’s Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues. Unreleased to this day, it has, in the words of Don Delillo, worked “its way into the culture as a contraband artefact”. The film’s release was blocked by the band, and though bootleg copies have long circulated among fans, contemporary prints such as this one, in its original box with 1970s BOAC and BEA flight tags still attached, are rare.
In 1971 The Rolling Stones hunkered down in a scratch-built basement studio in France to create what has been recognised with hindsight (and was immediately hailed by those possessed of fully functioning foresight) as their masterwork: Exile on Main St. A commercial success, it inspired the undertaking of their first US tour in three years – they had not been back since the disaster that was Altamont – and it was decided that their return merited the creation of a visual record, one uniquely matched to the album’s very particular vision.
To direct the film the Stones hired photographer Robert Frank, famous for his controversial 1959 photobook The Americans (some of his still images had been used in the album art for Exile). The film was conceived as a verité tribute to the band on the road at their most satanically majestic and Frank’s overarching concept for the movie – which was to include footage from cameras, some in various states of disrepair, left around for members of the band’s entourage to pick up and shoot at will – depended on the acceptance of the basic proposition that “none of the people in the Rolling Stones could say no,” explains documentary director Paul Justman, then an editor on the film. “If they said no, then Robert put the camera down and he left. There wouldn’t be any anger or anything. It would be like, ‘OK, you guys have given up and said no to me. Get someone else'” (John Robinson, “While the camera was rolling”, The Guardian, 9 October 2004).
What emerged was “a ragged travelogue of debauchery and despair, a work that pulled back the curtain on the Stones’ sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll image to reveal a gaping wound” (Hamilton, Jack. “Why Did You Want To Film That?” Slate, July 9, 2013). It was rapidly injuncted by the Stones themselves, and subsequently has been permitted to be shown just five times a year, and then only with Frank in attendance. Serious critical response inevitably has been limited, with Brian Wallis drawing attention to the fact that “although the film achieved considerable notoriety … when the Stones refused to allow its release … there have been almost no serious reviews or studies of the film itself”, before going on to describe it as containing “some of Frank’s most poignant and pointed images, and his most pungent and sustained treatment of the political themes that dominated The Americans” (Conflicting Images: Postmodernism and the Demystification of Art in American Culture , pages 296-7).
Frank’s outsider aesthetic double-filtered through the sensibilities of another group of outsiders, polarising his critique to even greater effect. In his assessment of it as Frank’s “true masterpiece”, maverick art critic Charlie Finch describes Cocksucker Blues as “a far truer picture of the USA than anything [else] Frank ever did … It is what America was and has been trying to wash away with the politically correct, handwringing nannyisms of the same generation whose search for the dumbest, most searing highs turned Robert Frank’s movie camera on. The gulf between the suck and the suckers has never been so wide” (“Cocksucker Blues”, on artnet, retrieved 7 June 2013). Author Terry Southern, who “features” in the movie, recounted Frank’s attempt to explain his intentions to Keith Richards; “It’s vérité,” he said. “Never mind vérité,” the guitarist replied, “I want poetry”. Maybe this time they both got what they wanted.