The NXNE film series closed last night with the Canadian premiere of Stephen Kijak's doc about the making of Exile On Main Street, which has just been remastered and re-released. Stones in Exile itself will be released on DVD on Tuesday. Unfortunately, Exile was scheduled against the free Iggy Pop and Stooges show, and the screening suffered from a muddy mono sound at the newly opened The Underground Cinema, a beautiful 700-seat former Chinese movie palace.
However, this doesn't detract from a good film. At 61 minutes, Stones in Exile packs as much information and impression as it can in a stylish and entertaining manner. The Stones hired Kijak to tell the story behind the chaotic sessions which took place in a humid basement in Keith Richard's mansion located in the south of France. It's spring 1971 and Mick Jagger just got married. His new wife, Bianca, was about to have a baby in Paris, so Mick was distracted as he shuttled back and forth. Meanwhile, the extended band (horn section, singers, pianist) hung around the house with their wives and kids, giving the Nellcote mansion a communal feel (this was the afterglow of the 60s after all).
There was lots of jamming and yes, there were drugs, but that's only part of the story [see the Q&A below]. Somehow, despite the lacksadasical recording sessions and fragmented schedule, a great album was made, one that regularly shows up in Top 10 lists and is often hailed as the band's finest achievement.
Kijak tells the story through stills by photographer Dominique Tarle and most tantalizingly with footage and outtakes from Robert Frank's unreleased doc of the 1972 tour, Cocksucker Blues. Long bootlegged, those clips have never looked so clear and beautiful. There's a magnificent, never-seen snippet of Mick and Keith spinning an impromptu blues number on acoustic guitars. At times, Kijak throws in concert clips from the soon-to-be-released doc, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones.
Kijak also relies heavily on vintage and recent audio interviews with the Stones and their associates. Unfortunately we don't see those people on camera, like Keith's ex-wife Anita Pallenberg, and their former (and best) guitarist Mick Taylor. Instead we get unnecessary talking heads of Jack White and Sheryl Crow praising the album.
* "Tumbling Dice" was inspired by the housekeeper of the mansion who used to gamble at the nearby casino, recalls Jagger.
* "Casino Boogie" was written by Jagger a la William Burroughs by stringing random phrases together scribbled on strips of paper.
* Keith explains his smack habit, "to hide from the world." Meanwhile, Mick warns that at some point "you control the lifestyle, but then the lifestyle controls you."
* Charlie Watts, who would've been an art director had he not become a Stone, fingered photographer Robert Frank to design the cover.
We hear snippets of outtakes (such as a lovely demo of "Loving Cup") and studio chatter that only begs for more. Kijak does a good job of establishing the world from which Exile sprung, one of post-sixties decadence and bohemianism. You walk away from this film amazed that an album was finished under these difficult circumstances, especially one as great. However, I wish each song was discussed, a la the "Classic Albums" series, the interviews took place on camera, the film was longer, and a few more voices were included, such as a Jann Wenner or a rock critic.
Of all the guest interviews, the most observant comes from Jake Weber who was only eight-years-old at the time. He recalls rolling joints for his old man, who was a dealer and guest of Keith and Anita. "At this point, this was the moment of grace. This was before the darkness," he says mindful of Richards' subsequent heroin addition which almost destroyed the band. "This was the sunrise before the sunset."
What follows is a distillation of Kijak's post-screening Q&A, answering questions from myself and the audience:
1) Was your film tied in with the recent remaster release of Exile On Main Street?
Oh yeah. In an ideal world, I would've spent three years making a three-hour version. It was a work for hire--I was hired by the Stones. It was very fast. We started production and post [editing] the same day. It was all for the [reissue] deadline.
2) You had rare access to Robert Frank's footage [from Cocksucker Blues]. What footage did you not include in the film?
Drugs! [laughter] Mountains of cocaine. The famous groupie scene where she was [quote sign with his hands] gang-raped on the plane. Those reasons why Cocksucker Blues is suppressed. We do address drugs, which you can't separate from the story....Then there was the extended sequence of The Stones pulling up to this suburban home in Atlanta I think, of the family of one of the roadies or back-up singers. This big black family has cooked a Sunday brunch. The Stones pull up in station wagons and hang out. Grandma is at the stove literally cooking. It was great footage, but I had only an hour [for the film]....The challenge was, Was this applicable to the story? The film was intended for network television.
3) How does Stones In Exile compare to other accounts about the making of Exile On Main Street?
Robert Greenfield's A Season In Hell is the sex, sex, sex, drugs, drugs, drugs, rock 'n' roll story version of the story. It's great. We all love that kind of stuff, but we had to make a choice. Do we do all that or flip it. They did make a really great album. We wanted to get inside that process. Greenfield's book is really salacious, but it's a really good read. Bill Janovitz wrote one of the 33-and-a-third books [Continuum Books 33 1/3 Music Series] and that's the exact opposite--for music geeks extreme. He writes about every influence of every song.
4) Why didn't you include any of the songs found on the bonus CD found on the remastered Exile On Main Street?
Like I said I could've gone three hours on Exile alone. It's a good, little extra disc, but I didn't think why edge out some of this material for the extra disc.
5) Why didn't you film inside of the Nellcote mansion where the Stones recorded Exile?
We couldn't. A Russian billionaire now owns the house and doesn't give a shit about its legacy. We almost got arrested trying to run with the gate as it was closing. We went there with a 16mm camera. All those shots of the house, we rented a boat and zoomed up. The house is right there in the bay....It's a shame. It should be a museum.