This column originally ran on Comics Bulletin
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friends Jason Sacks and Keith Silva found 2010's Stones in Exile, directed by Stephen Kijak.
Sacks: The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street may be the greatest rock album of the 1970's. Hell, it may be one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded with its intensely dark, endlessly moving, incredibly powerful, fantastically wonderful songs that seem to be completely saturated in an amazing mix of drugged-out intensity, brilliant creativity, an improvisational brightness and a spectacular celebration of the history of rock and roll.
If there ever was an album that really made the legend of the Rolling Stones come to life, it's this breathtaking album. The bad boys of rock and roll took the ignominious insult of tax exile, wandered to France, holed up in the basement of a house that Keith Richards rented and created a druggy, brilliant wall of murky intensity.
Naturally anyone like me who loves this album wants to learn about it. How could we not? Exile is an album rich in mystery, in curiosity, in legend and a feeling of lost early '70s decadence. Thankfully there's a documentary called Stones in Exile that tells the story of this legendary album.
Stones in Exile does a wonderful job of telling the story of this album. The director gets all of the Stones to tell the story of the making of the album, but the most interesting stories come from the likes of Anita Pallenberg (Keith Richard's wife), producer Jimmy Miller, the hilarious saxophonist Jimmy Keys and even some of the kids who hung out while the album was made. In this fast-moving, thoroughly entertaining hour, the story of this album, filled with the "Stones against the world, fuck you attitude" that Richards really embraced.
Keith and Daniel, did you think this documentary was a worthy tribute to a brilliant album or could nothing catch the original's brilliance?
Silva: Given the source material, writing about Stones in Exile presupposes some naked, unvarnished disclosure so here goes: I'm not an Exile-guy; I'm Sticky Fingers from head to toe. If I'm ever stranded on that metaphorical “desert island” and I can only have one album or even one song, it would be Sticky Fingers and the song would be Can't You Hear Me Knocking.
This is my favorite era of the Stones from 1968 to 1972. Four albums (five since Exile is a double) that distill rock-and-roll to its purest essence: Beggar's Banquet ('68), Let It Bleed ('69), Sticky Fingers ('71) and Exile on Main Street.
Exile is revered as “the best Stones album,” O.K. fine, I get that, but that's like picking your favorite child or favorite writer at Comics Bulletin (Hey Nick!). I get why Kijak, the director, provides some context at the very beginning (and at the end) of this documentary with those throwaway interviews to help the uniformed -- like that bearded boob from Kings of Leon, seriously (!?!) that dude says nothing, NOTHING -- “understand” the rock-and-roll Everest that we are about to scale, but give me Mick and Charlie wandering around Olympic Studios any day (again, saying nothing of real import) with Mick undercutting the whole purpose of their visit in the first place and the purpose of the documentary itself, “where were we,” says Mick, "boring, really, old fucking recording sessions, I mean boring, who gives a shit?" There's that irreverence, that fuck you attitude you noted Sacks.
Watching this for the third time, I realized that Mick and Charlie aren't taking their stroll down memory lane at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles where Exile was finished; they're at Olympic Studios in London. Why the ruse? Maybe this is one of those instances that if you can remember recording Exile on Main Street you weren't really there.
When it comes to Stones in Exile, I'm reminded of that line from Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” What happened to the Rolling Stones in the south of France at Nellcôte is the legend, not the fact. Sure, this documentary is, as you say Sacks, a “fast-moving, thoroughly entertaining hour,” but it's not much more than a well-produced and slick EPK.
The true adventures of the Rolling Stones at Nellcôte always sounds to me like somebody going on and on about this incredible party they went to, but I wasn’t at (it's kind of how I feel about SDCC or NYCC).
I'll grant you that for as tedious as it is to watch somebody work, to make something. I'd rather watch Keith, the Micks, Charlie, Bill and assorted other ornaments make Exile than almost anything else. I would also give serious consideration to sell my very soul to hear Bobby Keys tell war stories about his time with the Rolling Stones if for no other reason than to explain what it means to “shit in tall cotton.”
Stones in Exile is a 25-cent peep show. It's a contact high of whatever monkeyshines went on that spring and summer of '71 and that's it. What I wish it was was Cocksuker Blues, but it ain't. Until the “better angels of our nature” prevail upon those flaccid-judges, those milk-babies who keep us from seeing rock gods being indulgent asshole '70's rock gods, cocaine, cunnilingus and all, until that day, we have Stones in Exile. It's a backseat hand-job, at best, when what we want, what we need is something to match the full-on sexy bacchanalia that is Exile on Main Street.
The convenient truth is Elkin (and Sacks), Stones in Exile is no Cocksucker Blues and I lament it, Elkin, I lament it so.
Elkin: Okay, Silva, Sacks (the greatest backup band, EVER), I get where you guys are going here and I am along for the ride.
In one of the throwaway interviews in this film that you note, Silva, somebody (was it Martin Scorsese, the arbiter of Rock Cool???) says something to the effect that we can “use the Stones as markers, as they reflect their times.” First off, if this is true, what does this say about the year 2012, and second, how does this play out in Stones in Exile? Both of you so far have drawn attention to the drug dirge boogie that is Exile on Main Street, which, it seems to me, is an accurate summation of the early 1970's where the culture wars revolved around the axes of racial tension, cocaine, heroin, political unrest and the death of hippie culture in favor of leisure suits and really wide ties. Somehow, by holing up in a basement studio in the South of France, the Glimmer Twins and their entourage tapped into this zeitgeist and created something of value, something that, while not directly commenting on the world at large, created a space in which everyone could at least shake their hips or drive that much faster down Interstate 90.
Stones in Exile is a nice whitewash on the events surrounding this act of artistry, but it uses an old, crusty paint roller to cover the walls so that there are still some dark stains that show through. Keith makes a casual mention of his heroin use, the line “sometimes the lifestyle starts to choose you” trips out of someone's tongue, the photographs start to show terror in people's eyes. The recording of this album was a banquet. What was served was the end of an era, and, like you Silva, I would have really liked to have seen more of the menu.
Then again, I'm a Let It Bleed man, myself, although I am oftentimes found late at night singing Loving Cup into the phone to the most beautiful woman I know. I also believe that All Down the Line is one of the greatest driving songs of all time.
But the film, yeah, the film ...
What we get here is a snapshot of a creative process. This hoard of self-indulgent young people descend, together, into a moment and though they emerge torn and frayed, are able to create from that something of eternal value. This is art and it lays waste to a great deal in its creation. What existed before is ground into the vinyl and shot forth as something new from our woofers and our tweeters. All the influences come together in this moment, fueled though it may be through self-destruction and heartbreak and tears. Is the end product worth it? Does the act of creation validate the destruction? These are questions that Stones in Exile doesn't even begin to answer – but this “backseat hand-job” of a documentary, through its marketing and PR whitewash, inadvertently, at least for me, raises them at least.
Sacks: It's interesting that all three of us love the Stones but claim different albums as our favorites. Exile is absolutely one of my favorite albums of all time; in fact, it comes perilously close to being the very apotheosis of musical greatness for me. Exile is the purest distillation possible of not just the Stones dissolute lifestyle, but also their incredibly indulgent, tremendously improvisational creative process.
The music on this album has an amazing freshness to me; even 40 years after this music was created (40 years?! How is that possible?!), it retains its breathtakingly improvisational feel, its grungy freshness, its perfect feeling of being an alternative history of rock and roll in all its raw druggy sexuality and sensuality. Exile still has power in 2012, and I desperately wanted to get real insights into the album that my 20-year-old and I frequently discuss as being the very Platonic form of the soul of rock and roll.
And like both of you, I was disappointed by the kind of frustrating whitewashed blandness of Stones in Exile that Elkin so brilliantly points out (I have to keep reminding myself that Elkin's insights are brilliant because I've gotten so used to them over the months we've been writing this column). I wasn't expecting anything as dark and brilliant-sounding as Cocksucker Blues, Silva, but I kept wanting to really get a feel for what life was really like at Nellcôte, something that would provide deeper insight into this work of brilliant singular artistry that I love so much. I wasn't looking so much to hear the equivalent of the stories of my adventures at San Diego Comic-con (and believe me, I have a bunch), but to use the stories presented in this documentary to provide me deeper insight into a work of art that I love very much.
I think what you're getting at, Keith, is that this movie just doesn't give that insight, and I think you hit on something that Daniel and I have frequently talked about in the "Convenient Truths" column, the dichotomy between the docs that give us real insight into their topics and the docs that skate more on the surface. In fact that was the crux of the conversation we had about the documentary we watched about North Korea. In that case, part of the interest of watching Crossing the Line came from the process of finding hidden truths behind the stories being told; did either of you find interesting insights in Stones in Exile despite the fact that "if you remember Nellcôte, you were never at Nellcôte"?
Silva: Writing with the two of you is like 'taking candy from strangers.' It makes me so happy! You want insights, eh, Sacks? Cheeky. That's what I came away with here. The Rolling Stones are maybe the cheekiest of rock-and-roll bands, ever. Listening to Bill Wyman whine about his life as a DP and tax-exile and not being able to procure PG Tips (for tea), Branson Pickle and having to deal with (the complicated) French milk is what we refer to nowadays as first-world problems. There’s a point in all the hand wringing about having to leave mother England, when Mick Taylor says, ''we flew to France in our own jet.'' Brutal. The title, Exile on Main Street, always sounds to me to have a smirking irony, you're in exile, sure, but it's convenient to the things you need save, perhaps, Branson pickle.
Scorsese is a myth-maker of fabulous proportions, so when he starts going on about the Stones “having to implode” and “not being able to go home,” I call bullshit on that. This is the most comfortable and indulgent stretch any 'exile' has ever had to pull.
Elkin, (to use another Anglo-ism) you're spot-on about Stones in Exile being remiss of some kind of cultural context. Don Was mentions Coppola making Apocalypse Now and the “death of the 60's” (which the Stones were ringside for at Altamont), but “that guy” wasn't at the party. Stones in Exile is about living in Shangri-La, running speedboats and going to the zoo. At one point, Keith says, ''we were in a bubble.''
I wonder what the two of you will make of this: do you think Exile on Main Street -- what Jason calls "the soul of rock-and-roll" -- owes more to what happened in LA or at Nellcôte? Mick talks about the songs that became Exile on Main Street as being in various states, fragmentary and without lyrics before they got to Sunset Sound in LA. So what the hell happened in France? And for that matter, what the hell happened in LA? I guess that's what I come away with after watching Stones in Exile, it's incomplete. For all its faux-grit, this is an edited version of the creative process from inside the bubble.
I think the reason Exile on Main Street is such a rock-and-roll landmark is because it's the best parts of Mick and Keith combined. Nellcôte was Keith's domain (Mick's Apocalypse Now) and LA was all Mick and whatever happened in LA gets exiled in this documentary. Again, the legend of Exile on Main Street is in ''zee south of France'' so what we get is the sexier, druggier hothouse legend and not the sober (and boring?) facts. I don't know guys, this one leaves me all 'sixes, sevens and nines.' Maybe my housemaid can explain it to me. That's on the Comics Bulletin perk list, yeah?
Elkin: She's a jaded, faded junkie nurse, Silva, but oh what pleasant company.
And that's what we're talking about, right?
I think it was Keith Richards who said in this film, “Mick's Rock and I'm Roll.” This may be the most profound thing left unexplored in Stones in Exile. It seems that for all intents and purposes, Nellcôte was the land of the Roll while LA was the land of the Rock and when you put the Rock on the Roll, you may create genius and boogaloo, but the fecund dampness of the Roll is somehow evaporated.
And it's in the Roll that the sinew of this story exists. I agree with you Silva that the Stones' sojourn to the South of France was a “first world” exile on a grand scale (poor Stones, God help them for they were inconvenienced at times, eh?), but it was enough of an exile to smack (heh) them out of a routine and the commonplace ease of creation that comfort engenders. Forced into a new environment, they couldn't rely on their old tricks but had to dig within themselves to cobble new noise. This was the Roll and it was a freight train loaded down with groins and empty bottles, chugging through a desert on a starless night.
To take those boxcars full of undulating formless groove and impose the Rock? Well, therein lies a certain level of genius (and the end result? Classic.), but it's like caging the panther so schoolkids can throw peanuts at its head. I agree with you, Sacks that the album Exile on Main Street “comes perilously close to being the very apotheosis of musical greatness” insofar as it boxes a beast for us to dance with, but I, for one, like my panthers wild, lurking in the trees, waiting to savage us, teeth and claw, as we wander through the jungle of our day-to-day.
Good Lord, am I mixing metaphors or what?
Anyway, once again, I feel that this is where Stones in Exile drops the ball. Imagine if we could have had true unfettered access to the comings and the goings (heh) at Nellcôte; if the film had spent more time in the basement and less time in the studio (as it were)? We keep pointing at the mythos surrounding the creation of this album as being one of the things that immortalizes it (besides, of course, the fantastic music), but what we get in this documentary is the version of this tale told by a marketing department – with just enough salacious material to titilate, but carefully constructed so as not to frighten or off-put. After all, this film was produced specifically to celebrate the re-release of Exile on Main Street, and let us not forget that at this point, The Rolling Stones is a rock BRAND, not a rock band. Follow the money, and therein you'll find the truth.
Ultimately, I have to ask the question: Does a whitewashing of this story undermine the value of the creative process it purports to document, neutering it, and thereby turning its original product into a sanitized commercial cardboard box devoid of any intent but to increase cash flow and make us comfortable with our own Ventilator Blues (What you gonna do about it? What you gonna do?)?
Sacks: It sounds like we reached a bit of a consensus about this movie: despite the flash and energy and slickness of the packaged documentary, we just wanted to see his face. We wanted to see the motivations behind the tumbling of dice. We wanted to gain insight into the caged panther; we wanted the rock and the roll. We wanted the real Mick and Keith, the real soul of the beast.
So to speak, we wanted the heroin along with the strange French milk (which is clearly the funniest part of the movie – all three times I watched this doc, it made me giggle. These are the leaders of the most dangerous band in rock and roll history?).
I watched this documentary because I wanted to get some real insight into the mysteries that are exposed on Exile on Main Street, to get a sense of how and why the musicians somehow stumbled onto the pure genius that the album represents.
And in that, Stones in Exile mildly disappoints. It's a lot more Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones than Cocksucker Blues. Exile on Main Street deserves better.
Silva: Consensus? Yeah, I suppose so Sacks, we've learned that Stones in Exile is no Exile on Main Street, that one should be wary of French milk, that Elkin likes his panthers wild and that I pine like a lovesick schoolgirl to one day see something called Cocksucker Blues.
I think the other aspect we've all hit on here is when it comes to the creative process, there are many ways to skin the cat or flay the feline. I consider myself more of a (re)writer than a writer. Whatever I first put down on the page is always subject to change and change and revisions of revisions. I treat my writing as never being finished, only abandoned. I 'nellcôted' (yes, I'm using Nellcôte as a verb) my last contribution to this discussion. A pure free-write, in which I thought it, wrote it, took a pass proofreading it and off it went. Maybe it was your manic energy Elkin or Jason, perhaps, it was wanting to see if I could yoke the love you have for an album with something that is far far inferior. Then again, how do you match something as singular as Exile on Main Street?
If we take Stones in Exile at face value, there are worse ways to spend an hour. I believe that for someone who isn't familiar with Exile on Main Street, this is, what we in comic book criticism call, a good jumping on point. I have very fond memories of watching rock docs like The Rolling Stones 25X5 and The Complete Beatles and how watching those documentaries gave me a different perspective into all those “old fucking recording sessions.”
For me, this is also a very vivid, corporately-produced peek at one scintilla of the creative process that went into a renowned piece of art. I've been trying to come up with metaphors (both simple and complex) for this documentary and I keep editing myself and coming back to the idea that one can't frame the creative process and in the end, why would you want to?
About another G.O.A.T album, I read somewhere (maybe it's apocryphal) that Miles Davis called the recording sessions for Kind of Blue, ''the most fun I've ever had with my pants on.'' As writers (and fathers) each of us knows that the creative process is always messy with occasional moments of sheer terror and fun. Whatever Keith and the boys wrought in the basement of Admiral Byrd's old villa in the south of France, it wasn't raw, but it wasn't refined either. And whatever Mick and the boys did to shine a light on what came out of that humid gritty rabbit warren of a basement when they got to LA was a rock-and-roll quid pro quo. Mick's right, who gives a shit? Nellcôte, LA, British tax exiles, it matters little, 'cause, at the end of the day (all down the line?) damn if it don't get your rocks off every single fucking time.
Elkin, you're the soul survivor, take us home, brother.
Elkin: I do like my panthers wild. It even says so on my resume.
Consensus? Rating? As a true document of what really happened, Stones in Exile fails to give us what we want, but I think that in this, especially though our discussion, we got what we need.
“I'm the man on the mountain, come on up.”
Trailer for the film:
Jason Sacks is Publisher of Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @jasonsacks, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on Facebook.
Keith Silva believes that Act V, Scene I of Hamlet is the high-water mark of Western culture. He has a Twitter ( @keithpmsilva) and makes infrequent updates to an obscurely named blog that is not a front for swingers: Interested in Sophisticated Fun?
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