‘Sympathy for the Devil’ or — Agit Goes Pop?

I’ve never been a fan of The Rolling Stones (I think it’s all that infantile, priapic swaggering and preening going on) but I am a fan of Jean-Luc Godard, which is just as well as ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ (1968) is more Godard than Stones so if you’re here to see an intimate and insightful portrait of Mick and Keith, etc here then you might find the movie infuriating and irritating beyond belief, whereas if you’re a Godard fan then… well, you’re still going to find it infuriating and irritating beyond belief but, let’s face it, it’s the mischievous exasperation we come for with JLC.

The film follows the Stones as they set about rehearsing and recording Sympathy for the Devil… and only that one song. We hear, and see, it grow from a laid back little number into the intensely demonic piece we all know and some of you out there love. It’s a peek into the creative process of how a song can be put together as well as an interesting glimpse into the relationship dynamics within a rock band. So if you’re a Stones fan you’ll be in heav…

And then Jean-Luc completely shatters both the comfort of the rock documentary and the viewers own enjoyment by cutting from the recording studio to a dilapidated junkyard and a ten minute, unbroken segment consisting of black power speeches interspersed with violently edited sound design (I love the use of hard sonic cuts in Godard), overlapping and contradictory dialogue and narration and deliberate visual provocation. Is this commenting on the Stones appropriation of black music or is it purely to annoy the audience? Is it both? With Godard it’s often, if not always, both.

Then it’s back to the studio and that’s when I was surprised to find myself missing the black power activists more than I had been missing the Stones, possibly because ‘Sympathy for the Devil’s camera moves are frequently more interesting than the music itself (although Charlie Watts’ drumming is rather nice).

After observing the band in action for a while we cut away from the studio for more seemingly random and unconnected radical political nonsense, usually involving watching Anne Wiazemsky painting revolutionary slogans around various parts of London.

Meanwhile Keith, Mick and the rest still tinker away at this one song to the point it takes all the glamour out of the recording process and showing it for the interminable slog it can frequently be.

Then it’s another hard cut but this time to a local newsagent which opens with a really quite wonderful camera pan across rows of dirty magazines, comic books and newspapers; pornography and propaganda all mixed together. The newsagent is reading aloud from ‘Mein Kampf’ as various people pop in to buy a paper, pay their money, offer up a Nazi salute and then bugger off. Even a little girl does so. Is this Godard saying… ? Well, I’m not too sure what he’s saying but I’m going to have a stab ‘at how modern culture is, effectively, fascistic’. Either that or it’s Godard annoying us again, especially as this scene goes on for AGES. But I must admit, I did find it all rather funny.

Then it’s back to the studio and the Stones putting in the ‘Whoo, who…

… Oh, I also forgot to mention that throughout ALL of this, sometimes dropping in unannounced like an enemy paratrooper, is an aggressive voice-over reciting extracts from a pornographic novel. So yeah, if you think all the above sounded grating, infuriating and irritating as hell then just wait until you have this sonic abrasiveness scraping over your ears as well.

Anyway, the film climaxes the band recording the finished song before cutting to a beach where the process of filmmaking is deconstructed (or maybe ‘exposed’ might be the more accurate word) whilst a camera crane lifts an immobile woman up into the sky… for some reason.

If you’re a fan of The Rolling Stones then this movie might seriously drive you up the wall as despite the time-capsule value of the piece it deliberately frustrates the typical rock-documentary format. And thank god! I mean, how many boring, tedious and sycophantic rock-docs have you seen over the last few years that achieve absolutely nothing other than what you expected all along anyway? At least this is refreshing and for a film over fifty years old then that’s not that bad.

‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is everything Jean-Luc Godard detractors hate and understandably so, but that deliberate and wilful self-sabotaging is something I, personally, find invigorating about Godard. And sure, you’ve got all that political posturing that can seem so adolescent that even Rick from ‘The Young Ones’ would find it laughable but I love the fact the film is so unapologetically engaged and forthright. It addresses black power, propaganda, the myth of celebrity and the desperate need for radical political change. Personally I think we need this attitude now more than ever before.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.