Thursday, 29 March 2012
Long Play: Sympathy for the Devil + Performance
Mick Jagger. © Warner/The Kobal Collection.
As part of its Long Play program, ACMI presents Sympathy for the Devil (12 to 30 May), Jean-Luc Godard's agitprop music documentary from 1968 featuring the Rolling Stones, alongside selected sessions of Performance (19, 26 and 27 May), the trippy UK gangster film featuring the Stones' charismatic front-man as a (self-reflexivity alert!) hedonistic rock star.
Following months of conflict between university students and authorities which led to the May '68 riots in Paris, French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard relocated briefly to London and set about making a film to "subvert.all civilised values" (The Observer). The result was Sympathy for the Devil, a countercultural mash-up of music and politics as Godard cut between takes of the Rolling Stones recording the film's classic title track (in which Jagger-as-Lucifer surveys the spoils of history) and staged scenes of young revolutionaries intent on making their own history.
In scripted set pieces, Godard explores the limits of language as a revolutionary force. Militant black activists spout ideological rhetoric while a winsome neophyte feminist, Eve Democracy (Godard's then wife, Anne Wiazemsky), provides yes/no answers to a film crew interviewing her in a rural setting.
Godard's long, luxuriant tracking shots inside the Stones' recording studio observe the band reworking and recording the now-classic track, 'Sympathy for the Devil', from their Beggars Banquet album. These scenes are political in their own way, revealing the pecking order within the band itself. As Erich Kuersten wrote in his 2009 essay, Postcards from Hell, Jagger and Keith Richards "rule like roosters".
Making his acting debut in Performance, Mick Jagger plays Turner, a reclusive former rock star who has "lost his demon" and is living with his girlfriend, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards' girlfriend at the time) and her girlfriend, Lucy (Michele Breton). On the run and fearing for his life, a thuggish London crim called Chas (James Fox) turns up on Turner's doorstep and elects to hole up in his Notting Hill digs. Not surprisingly, given the trio's free love vibe and the hallucinogenic substances on offer, Chas gets to plumb some unexpected homoerotic depths during his stay.
Warner Bros. executives were hysterical when they finally saw what the studio had financed in Performance and threatened to destroy the negative. Directors Cammell and Roeg employed the full arsenal of dislocating tropes drawn from experimental and underground cinema and hardly pulled their punches when it came to depictions of drug-spiked sex and violence. Cooler heads prevailed with personnel changes at Warner Bros. and Performance finally had a theatrical release in August 1970, two years after it was produced.
Praise for Sympathy for the Devil:
"A film about art, power and revolution. Great stuff: a snapshot of a far-off, lost world where rock music is still a redemptive and revolutionary force" - The Observer
"Agitprop at its finest.Godard in full-flow polemic" - Eye for Film
"The Long Play season of Sympathy for the Devil screens from 12 to 30 May 2012 at ACMI in Melbourne alongside selected screenings of Performance on 19, 26 and 27 May 2012. For program information please visit acmi.net.au
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