Sympathy for the Devil Melissa Anderson

The nature of his game: Jean-Luc Godard captures the Rolling Stones and 1968 agitprop.

Sympathy for the Devil. Image courtesy ABKCO Films.

Sympathy for the Devil, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West Fifty-Third Street, New York City, September 13–19, 2018

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Sympathy for the Devil was not the original name for the 1968 film by Jean-Luc Godard that consists, in part, of footage of the Rolling Stones in the Olympic Sound Studios in London recording the eponymous track; it was insisted upon by one of the movie’s producers. Godard had chosen One Plus One as the title for this wobbly cine-sermon, an ungainly amalgam of Maoist posturing, Black Panther proselytizing, and Carnaby Street chic. One Plus One is a typically Godardian title, puckishly enigmatic. Less characteristically, the name is a misdirection: nothing adds up in this movie. Often as transfixing as it is unendurable, the film is lesser than the sum of some of its parts. It demands a new math, working best when subtracted and divided.

This confounding artifact of a seismic year, which screens for a week at the Museum of Modern Art in a new 4K digital restoration, functions as something of a hinge in Godard’s filmography. Sympathy for the Devil was JLG’s first feature-length project after Weekend (1967), a bourgeois-bashing, obsidian-black comedy that famously includes a closing credit declaring “FIN DE CINEMA.” Shortly after completing Sympathy for the Devil, Godard would renounce authorship altogether, forming, with Jean-Pierre Gorin (and others), the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective devoted to ultra-doctrinaire, extreme-left filmmaking—the furthermost reaches of a militancy first on display in Godard’s La Chinoise (1967), a boisterous movie about a Maoist-student household.

Made in the weeks following the insurrections in France of May ’68—events that included Godard and his Nouvelle Vague confrere François Truffaut leading the charge to shut down the Cannes Film Festival in solidarity with the nation’s striking workers and students—Sympathy for the Devil emerged from a scrapped plan. As Colin MacCabe recounts in Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (2003), the filmmaker, although indifferent to free love and drugs, was fascinated by the third element of the counterculture trifecta: rock music. JLG had initially planned to make a film about Trotsky, starring John Lennon as the Russian revolutionary; the project was nixed after two meetings with the Beatle, who “was extremely suspicious of Godard.”

The Rolling Stones, in contrast, were much more compliant, and even flattered to be approached by “the great French cinematic innovator,” as Keith Richards, the band’s guitarist, calls JLG in his 2010 autobiography, Life. But looking back on the five days Godard spent filming the quintet in the studio, Richards speaks less kindly about that innovator: “he looked like a French bank clerk.” The rocker, forty-plus years on, dismisses Sympathy for the Devil as “a total load of crap” and grouses that JLG “had no coherent plan at all except to get out of France and score a bit of the London scene.”

What does cohere, mesmerizingly, in Godard’s disjunctive movie are those segments that trace the evolution of “Sympathy for the Devil,” which would become the first track on Beggars Banquet (1968), the Rolling Stones’ widely praised return to Brit-blues following the tepidly received psychedelic experiment Their Satanic Majesties Request (1967). As captured by Godard, the group’s ode to Lucifer undergoes multiple iterations, transforming from a sluggish, acoustic guitar–heavy number to an indelible, conga-driven samba.

Sympathy for the Devil. Image courtesy ABKCO Films.

Godard and his cinematographer, Anthony B. Richmond, slowly pan right and then left, pausing on each of the five Stones as they start, strum, stop, and repeat. Guitarist Brian Jones (who would be found dead at the bottom of a pool a year later) is often filmed from the back, his blond mop moving in time to the increasingly layered rhythm. Bulwarked in a quasi-cubicle, drummer Charlie Watts drains a bottle of Coke in between takes. Stony-faced Bill Wyman, the band’s bassist, sits nearly motionless on a stool and impresses with his outfit, a bold mélange of pinks and cherry reds. Richards, festooned with elaborate necklaces, forgoes shoes, prefers to sit on the floor, and performs the count off. And Mick Jagger, the group’s front man and the main author of this checklist of Mephistophelean achievement, instantly hypnotizes the moment the number’s opening plea—perhaps the most sinisterly courteous come-on in pop music—leaves his lips: “Please allow me to introduce myself.”

Jagger’s first-person identification with the Prince of Darkness in the song, here a foppish aristocrat—“I’m a man of wealth and taste”—no doubt served to cement his reputation as radio’s top-ranking debauchee. But the lyrics, a catalog of atrocities over the millennia, also incorporate horrors then only hours old. The original line “I shouted out / Who killed Kennedy?” was amended to “Who killed the Kennedys?” to reflect a gruesome coincidence: Senator Robert Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, during the recording of “Sympathy for the Devil.”

Sympathy for the Devil. Image courtesy ABKCO Films.

History in the present tense, the Stones’ sulfurous anthem has a gravity and political urgency missing from Godard’s film, despite its strenuous sloganeering. Interlaced with the patient, curious scenes in the Olympic Sound Studios are several agitprop skits, motifs of varying degrees of obtuseness. In one, an haut mod, clad all in purple, reads aloud from Mein Kampf in a smutty bookstore; the cramped space also holds two bloodied POWs who affectlessly proclaim, “Peace in Vietnam.” (The Nazi lector is played by Iain Quarrier, the producer who insisted on the name change of JLG’s movie; Godard returned the favor by punching Quarrier during the premiere of Sympathy for the Devil at the London Film Festival in November ’68.) In another thread, black revolutionaries assemble in an auto scrapyard by the Thames. Rifles are tossed from one man to the next; passages from Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver are recited. The segment is cacophonous and inert. Other sections return to Anne Wiazemsky, the twenty-one-year-old actress then married to Godard: as Eve Democracy, she is seen spray-painting feeble portmanteau mottos (“FREUDEMOCRACY,” “CINEMARXIST”) or giving simple (yet charmingly accented) “yes” or “no” responses to a series of clotted polemical queries by an overweening TV reporter.

Sympathy for the Devil. Image courtesy ABKCO Films.

Yet even with all its politically tumid longueurs, Sympathy for the Devil is still a great rock documentary—or, at the very least, one of the best portraits of an excessively chronicled band. A year after Godard filmed the Stones, Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin recorded the group’s blood-soaked concert at California’s Altamont Speedway; with its footage of a spectator’s killing, Gimme Shelter (1970) has the taint of a snuff film. More recently, Martin Scorsese’s obsequious Shine a Light (2008) dutifully documents the rock geezers’ umpteenth victory-lap performance. At its best, Sympathy for the Devil reveals something too rarely seen: the step-by-step metamorphosis of an enduring FM-radio staple, a song that, half a century ago, encapsulated an era’s overwhelming, destabilizing energy. The rest is noise.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns.

The nature of his game: Jean-Luc Godard captures the Rolling Stones and 1968 agitprop
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