The year is 1968 and The Rolling Stones are putting together the centrepiece track of their latest album, but it is turning out to be a trickier process than they anticipated. The song is Sympathy for the Devil, which details various aspects of history up to the present day and Satan's take on them, positioning himself as the architect of chaos and revolution. As we watch the band try out variations on the song, from lyrics to tempo to arrangement, the spirit of the times is pressing upon them: outside the studio, Eve Democracy (Anne Wiazemsky) spray paints slogans onto every available surface and black power advocates read their political litertature and plan the overthrow of the white establishment...
Jean-Luc Godard was your man behind the camera, in London to make seemingly anything that caught his fancy into a movie, and one of those things was The Stones who had been courted to appear on the big screen ever since they had made it in the music industry, for the usual template as set out by the Beatles, and indeed the Beatles' musical predecessors, was that they would star in a film vehicle specially tailored to them. But not for Mick Jagger and company the irreverence of A Hard Day's Night, they were more keen on working with a more serious director than Richard Lester, so when Godard approached them they allowed him to capture their rehearsal and recording process for what they felt was one of their strongest songs.
They would regret that, as Godard seemed just as interested in examining political polemic as he was in music, maybe even more so, therefore the sequences of the band, all shot in long, unbroken takes with a blandly roving camera, were intercut with those black activists, Godard's wife Wiazemsky vandalising bits of the British capital, and other such hard to read examples of message making that the film looked to be adopting a satirical view upon. You could contrast the band getting together to work in harmony with the discord of the society in '68, that year of revolution and upheaval, as depicted in the staged sequences of his actors making plans for smashing the system, whatever that may have been.
Along with that, the actor Sean Lynch was heard as narrator, but he was merely reading out text from a pulp spy paperback, including sex and violence (and possibly the first instance of the C-word ever heard on film), which again, appeared to be an ironic take on the readings from political books that we were served up as various other things went on, such as Wiazemsky giving the world's worst interview (she just answers "yes" or "no") in a forest, or the producer Iain Quarrier (a mover and shaker of the late sixties whose life took a long, depressing deterioration after the Manson murders shattered him) in a pulp bookshop spouting Adolf Hitler's words from Mein Kampf. Godard certainly seemed to be amusing himself, but was he amusing anyone else? It is a work that has infuriated the less radical Stones fan down the years.
Which was pretty much all of them, though it was interesting to watch the title song's evolution, and sad to see that Brian Jones by this time was barely contributing (he was heavily into drug use by this point). That said, all Bill Wyman seems to be doing is playing a little percussion, so it's very possible we were not getting the whole story from simply observing the group without any contextualising interviews. Every so often a celebrity would appear, such as James Fox (in the process of filming Performance with Jagger), or girlfriends Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg who offered up the "Woo, woo!" backing vocals, while seasoned film buffs might have recognised Françoise Pascal among the white girls who get mixed up with the black activists, though the outright statement that they were there to be murdered by the black man, although not before they were subject to their sexual attentions first, was not exactly a helpful stance to take, and suggested the radicals were closer to the conservative reactionaries than they would admit, which may have been the point. As it was, these days you imagine for a music documentary this was one of the most fast-forwarded examples ever made.