Just Be Yourself August 25, 2020
On Sympathy for the Devil and Let It Be
that is, in part, about the making of the Rolling Stones’ inexhaustible track of the same name. This is hardly the first music documentary covering the creative process, but Sympathy for the Devil particularly mimics Harvey’s installation in that the musicians are pretending as though they are not being watched; there is no affixed narrative working in tandem with the footage. Godard’s camera, which has a fly-on-the-wall sensibility, doesn’t intrude. It silently, steadily roves as the song progresses from a rather banal ballad to its celebrated, Latin-tinged, more frantic form.
A nonchalant Stones fan will appreciate seeing the song unfurl and the studio dynamic between members. Although the group is notorious for being pathologically hedonistic in its heyday, when in the confines of the studio the outside noise is quieted; though obviously this focus was not uniform for every session, in the case of the creation of “Sympathy for the Devil,” the Stones, together, were unified. It’s a sort of sonic equivalent of a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly, in fast motion, with no progress-hindering interruption. (Whichever stage is seeing Anita Pallenberg and Marianne Faithfull drop by to accompany the rest of the group in the song’s “oo ooos” is, I think, the most transformative part of the evolution — it's exhilarating how an almost off-the-cuff artistic decision would come to be musically totemic.)
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Godard would not for a single movie suddenly become a filmmaker capable of making a straightforward documentary about the making of a song by one of the era’s great groups. But I was anyway. I think this is because, knowing little about the movie going into it beside its musical angle, my hopes of wish fulfillment transformed into a sort of misguided certainty of what the project would entail. Godard, though, hasn’t made a particularly well-shot featurette to accompany Beggars Banquet (1968) with Sympathy for the Devil.
After giving up on making narratively driven films following the release of 1967’s Weekend, Godard has made a quasi-Trojan horse of a movie with Sympathy for the Devil. He gets audience members excited about the film because it purportedly features this unprecedented glimpse into the Stones’ writing process. Then he sneaks in a handful of polemical “skits” between each studio stretch to expound on his then-current political ideologies — as he became increasingly wont to do in the following decade and beyond. They cover the Black Panther party, Nazism, Maoism, Marxism, the state of Democracy, and more. I won’t go into their minutiae. But I will say that because they’re so didactic — essentially figures reading long-winded revolutionary texts — and fundamentally, if I’m reading into them correctly (they’re primarily incoherent), childish in their messaging, they grate.
Godard wants to create meaning via juxtaposition. What is the meaning of Sympathy for the Devil? Are its parts, taken together, supposed to function as simulacra of popular culture in the late-1960s? A critique of the Stones, in how their products were often politically flavored while they themselves were predominantly superficially so? An indictment of the viewer? (Was Godard looking to make intentionally flat but nonetheless intellectually driven skits to “bore” the everyday Stones fan and essentially call them out for prioritizing rock ‘n’ roll over contemporary, more pressing concerns? If that’s the case, you can’t win over a music-loving viewer with a side of condescension.) Whatever it is, Sympathy for the Devil is a failure of the polemical-movie form — if that's what it's striving to be. One can't be sure. Godard can’t get a viewer to care much about what’s being discussed, and because the viewer is likely to grow irritated by the dry preachings, it takes away from the real breakthrough of the movie, which is the studio stuff. It’s too big a breakthrough to welcome distraction; release the studio-only cut.
The Rolling Stones in Sympathy for the Devil, 1968
let into the London Somerset House and, for 45 minutes at a time, could watch Harvey and collaborators John Parish and Flood write and record parts of her upcoming album, still not yet called The Hope Six Demolition Project (2016), as part of a so-called art installation. Onlookers peered at the trio through one-way glass, in no doubt enthused less by the creative process itself and more so by seeing these figures operate in their natural habitat.
I couldn’t help but think of Harvey’s experiment while watching Sympathy for the Devil, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 documentary
n 2015, English singer-songwriter PJ Harvey gave her fans a daringly intimate look at her creative process. From Jan. 16 to Feb. 14, well-paying aficionados were
et It Be (1970) has an alluring conceit. Supposedly, per its coverage at the time of its release and still, it’s a rare inside look — a behind-the-scenes portrait of the Beatles as they worked out songs in the studio later to
be featured on Abbey Road (1969) and the 1970 LP from which the movie gets its namesake. We're told this is no ordinary behind-the-scenes featurette. Descriptions also tell us ahead of time that this 81-minute-long documentary is notable for capturing the fizzling interpersonal relationships between the members of the band, which would, unusually, ultimately lead to its permanent demise. (Most bands of the Beatles’ caliber, e.g. the aforementioned Rolling Stones or the Who, just keep pushing, changing the lineup if need be, to keep intact the state of their multimillion-dollar revue, regardless of intramember warmness.)
The movie can in moments be thrilling. Usually these waves of electricity show up when we’re watching now-inescapable hits at their youngest — some throat lumps formed for me watching Paul McCartney performing unvarnished versions of “The Long and Winding Road” and “Let It Be” in the studio. Or they flare up at the end of the film, which presents almost in full the Beatles’ legendary final concert on the roof of Apple Corps. headquarters in January, 1969.
But Let It Be is as much of a conceptually alluring movie as it is a relatively evasive and misleading one. Evasive in that it tries to gloss over a lot of the fragmenting happening between members at the time (namely George Harrison’s premature threatening to leave the group); misleading in that it presents relations as so exclusively uncommunicative and tense that there existed almost no moments in the band’s final days a moment of shared happiness. It was not a simplistically happy time, to be certain, but it wasn’t so one-dimensional, as later remembrances from members confirmed down the road. The movie’s portrait-painting is facile, and to even the most casual devoté can frustrate — so much so that, later on this year, director Peter Jackson is putting out a documentary not only covering the making of the Let It Be documentary but also incorporating footage that would more accurately (which is to say for better and for worse) show us how the Beatles were feeling about each other at the time. Let It Be gets some things right but not all — a frustrating thing when you’re a documentary presenting yourself to the world as a rare, to-be-cherished sneak peek. But when you’re an 81-minute-long documentary seeking to both sum up an extended period and work as a readily marketable promotional featurette, how much can you do effectively?
Sympathy for the Devil: B-
Let It Be: B