French film director Jean-Luc Godard believed that art was never finished. On the eve of his controversial film’s 50th anniversary reissue, Richie Unterberger talked to Tony Richmond, the cinematographer for Sympathy for the Devil (One Plus One) and, later, the Beatles’ Let It Be, the Who’s The Kids Are Alright and Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and Don’t Look Now
What was that all about?” chuckles an incredulous Mick Jagger at one point during the Sympathy for the Devil film. He’s referring to a different beat the Rolling Stones tried for the song “Sympathy for the Devil,” but he could just as well be wondering what the movie’s about.
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, about half of Sympathy for the Devil (aka One Plus One) shows the Stones rehearsing and recording “Sympathy for the Devil” in the studio. The other half — well, it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on. Black Panthers read from Eldridge Cleaver’s writings in a junkyard while virginal young women are shot off-screen. “Eve Democracy” (played by Godard’s then-wife Anne Wiazemsky) responds to an interrogator’s relentless sociopolitical questions with “yes” and “no” answers as she’s followed through the woods by a camera crew. Hapless revolutionaries are slapped silly in a pornographic bookshop.
What did it all mean?
The original trailer for the 1968 film:
Just issued by ABKCO, the 50th anniversary DVD/Blu-Ray edition of the movie doesn’t let us in on the secret. It does, however, add some interesting extras, including Voices, a 1968 documentary on Godard that was filmed while Sympathy for the Devil was in production. There’s also a commentary track by film critic David Sterritt; the director’s cut, which has a different ending than the commonly screened version; and, most notably, a 2018 documentary on the making of Sympathy for the Devil, including interviews with one of the film’s producers, Mim Scala, and cinematographer Tony Richmond.
“It’s about art and destruction,” Richmond declares, speaking with me shortly after the DVD/Blu-Ray’s release. “They’re very similar. Revolution is never finished. And Godard’s thing is that art is never finished.”
It’s fair to say, however, that most viewers—and certainly most Rolling Stones fans—were far more interested in the sequences capturing the conception and realization of “Sympathy for the Devil” than the surreal, almost agitprop scenes against which they were juxtaposed. Would the movie only have contained that Stones footage, it would be of immense historical importance. For it not only captures the band recording one of their most celebrated tracks. There’s no other instance—take it from one who has heard countless bootlegs of the Stones’ first decade—in which one of their songs changed so much from initiation to completion.
Starting off as a lugubrious, acoustic-flavored folk-blues song, “Sympathy for the Devil” starts perking up when a light Latin beat comes into the equation, Keith Richards switching to bass while Bill Wyman shakes some hand-held percussion. Ace keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, in on the session from the start, adds some ghostly, almost churchy organ that gives this intermediate version its own eerie spell.
It really comes to life, however, when Rocky Dijon joins on congas and the supercharged samba-like beat emerges. The icing on the backing track is the “woo woo” backing vocals, chant-sung by a jubilant circle of Stones and friends while Jagger lays down the lead several feet away behind a baffle. Over just a few nights in early June 1968, the song mutated from quasi-dirge to electrifying feet-on-hot-coals classic, its key stages captured on film by Godard and crew.
Many movies and promo films had documented, or simulated, recording sessions by everyone from the Beatles to Tommy Steele. But no previous sequences of such length (and few subsequent ones, for that matter) had truly shot the recording process pretty much as it actually was, rather than getting assembled around shots carefully constructed for the camera.
“It’s probably the first time anybody’s really seen the progression of a major group making a record,” agrees Richmond. “Which really goes in the beginning from one thing, to another thing at the end.”
Richmond first met the Stones in spring 1968 when he worked on their promo films for the “Jumping Jack Flash”/“Child of the Moon” single, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who’d go on to direct The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and the Beatles’ Let It Be).
“After Godard asked me to do the movie, I went to Paris every weekend for about a month,” Richmond remembers. “There was no script. All he wanted to talk about wasn’t the movie, but how we were going to film the Stones.”
The Beatles, incidentally, had also been approached to appear in the film—“he actually wanted John Lennon to play Trotsky at one point”—but discussions with them didn’t get too far.
“What was unusual—the Stones weren’t doing it for us. They weren’t doing it for the film. They were actually recording ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ So we were like voyeurs. That’s what makes it incredible, because it’s almost as if they weren’t performing for us. They were performing for themselves.
“We were at the studio four nights in a row. Every night when we turned up, Glyn Johns, the engineer, set up the baffles and put the mikes in, waiting for the Stones. ‘Cause he always knew where everybody was gonna be. He knew where Mick was gonna be, where Keith was gonna be, Charlie was gonna be. So we laid our [camera] tracks accordingly. That’s why there’s such long, long takes, because we just went with the action.
“They’re not hamming for the camera. If they were performing for us filming, it would be perfect. There would never be a mike coming in someone’s face, there would have never been half the shots you see. I think it’s real, and that’s the great thing about the movie.”
Along the way were some minor lyric variations that will intrigue Rolling Stones obsessives. The stage is set with “please let me introduce myself” before Jagger hits on the more memorable “please allow me to introduce myself.” Elsewhere, he enunciates “pleased to meet y’all” and “ain’t I a man of wealth and taste?”. Those colloquialisms eventually gave way to more polished grammar. Another change, however, wasn’t so minor, even if it only involved adding an “s” to one of the words.
As Richmond tells it, “On the second night when we came in, the lyrics were ‘who killed Kennedy?’ The next night, it was ‘who killed the Kennedys’? [Robert] Kennedy had been assassinated the second day.”
Another advantage of the DVD/Blu-Ray: the subtitles spell out the group’s mumbled conversations during the sessions, much of which are all but inaudible on the naked soundtrack. “Oh, fuckin’ hell,” grumbles Mick at one point. “You’ve got to come in on that other bit, Charlie. Try and make it a bit more live. It’s a bit dead, you know? Not clipped enough somehow.”
Yet relatively little is heard—musical or otherwise–from Brian Jones, almost exactly a year before he was fired from the band he had done so much to start in the early 1960s. In the opening sequence, he’s right there playing guitar with Mick (also, interestingly, on guitar) and Keith. Yet songwriters Jagger and Richards are very much the drivers of this session, with little detectable input from Jones, whose rhythm guitar seems all but buried in the finished track. He’s part of the circle of backup “woo-woo”-ers, but in the closing, lazy bluesy jam, he’s not even there. Was Brian getting marginalized, especially at a time when his struggles with various physical, mental, and legal problems were—at least according to some accounts—seriously affecting his ability to contribute to their records?
“No,” is Richmond’s emphatic response. “I’ve been asked that many times, certainly in some of the Q&A’s I’ve done. There’s great moments there where you see Keith throwing cigarettes or a lighter to Brian, then laughing and joking. There was great harmony all the time, and even Mick never got pissed off. There’s just that one little bit, ‘oh come on Charlie.’ But I didn’t notice any of that whatsoever. Now I did notice it the next year when I did The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. It’s very evident there. But he seemed okay.” It wasn’t even awkward, then, when he had to sing backup vocals alongside Richards and Anita Pallenberg, the ex-girlfriend who’d left him for Keith? “Absolutely not.”
Adds Tony, “When we did ‘Child of the Moon,’ the only one I had any interplay with was Brian Jones. I grew up quite near the farm where we were filming this on the outskirts of London, as far north as you can go. When we finished it, it was about five o’clock Sunday afternoon, it was a nice sunny day. Brian said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna have a drink at a pub I used to go to when I lived here.’ He said, ‘Can I come with you?’ So we went and sat for a couple hours. He was just a really nice, ordinary guy.”
That circle of friends hanging around the studio, by the way, includes some interesting non-Stones besides Pallenberg, in keeping with the increasingly eclectic assortment of characters popping up at their sessions. The young guy with the red scarf is photographer John Stember, director of the Voices documentary, who plays the journalist interviewing “Eve Democracy” in Sympathy for the Devil itself. The woman in the hat who can also be seen grooving along to the final jam, confirms Richmond, is Michele Breton, the young actress soon to star with Pallenberg and Jagger in Nicolas Roeg’s stunning cult film Performance. Another Performance star, James Fox, can be briefly spotted in the background of another scene.
There’s much, then, to intrigue and entertain Stones fans in Sympathy for the Devil, even in the shots of the mundane dead time/downtime that are as much a part of the recording process as scorching guitar solos and exuberant backup singers. The other half of the film, however, didn’t so much add up to One Plus One (to quote its alternate title) as leave most reviewers and audiences nonplussed upon its original release.
“I sneaked into a private screening last week and was never certain whether I was supposed to be provoked, disturbed or titillated,” wrote Keith Altham in the New Musical Express. “So I fell asleep!” The reaction wasn’t much different about a decade later, when I first saw it (in a double feature with Gimme Shelter) as a 17-year-old at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater. Restlessness at the non-Stones scenes occasionally gave way to catcalls from an audience largely, like myself, too young to have seen the group in the late ‘60s. The audience was eager for more music, not more propaganda, especially when passages from a porn novel are actually read on the soundtrack during scenes of the band in the studio.
“There was never any script, which drove the producers completely insane,” Richmond acknowledges. “So everything was done on the fly.” Guerilla tactics were employed in sequences where cars and hotel windows were spray-painted with political graffiti, as these weren’t mere props or stage sets, but actual cars and Hilton Hotel property vandalized without permission.
“We went into the hotel that morning, and I had the camera under my raincoat,” says Tony. “I didn’t know what we were gonna do. And [Anne Wiazemsky] jumps up on the sofa and starts spraying the windows.
“In London, a car would pick me up, take me to [Godard’s] hotel, I’d pick him and his wife up, and we had a prearranged spot where we would meet the camera truck. I’d get a little hand-held camera, get in the limo, and we’d drive around. Godard would say ‘stop,’ I’d kneel down on the floor, and his wife would start spraying this car. We never got any permission.”
Like many revolutionary acts, incidentally, Sympathy for the Devil was funded by a scion of the ruling class. Co-producer Michael Pearson “was sort of a rich playboy. He was Lord Cowdray’s son, who I think at the time was one of the richest men in England. Now Michael’s Lord Cowdray. I guess he wanted to get into what seemed like a good idea, to get into movies. He partnered up with Ian Quarrier”—another of the film’s co-producers, who ended up playing the guy reading aloud in a pornographic bookshop.
Quarrier was also the victim of real-life violence when Godard punched him at the film’s November 1968 premiere at the London Film Festival. Without his consent, the producers had overlaid the final studio version of “Sympathy for the Devil” over the movie’s final scenes and credits. As Richmond notes, “Godard’s thing is that art is never finished. That’s why he got so bent out of shape when the producers laid the sort of soundtrack over the end of the movie. ‘Cause in his mind, that would say, ‘Oh, it’s finished now.’”
I put it to Tony that both versions have their merits, as hearing “Sympathy for the Devil” in its final state after watching so many early attempts and fragments makes you hear a familiar work in a different light.
“Very, very much so,” he concurs. “On top of that, it’s a great song, one of my favorite songs of all time.” Nonetheless, “I read somewhere that [Godard] was so upset, he went to Mick Jagger to see if Mick could influence the producers any way to put the ending his way. And that didn’t happen. So he got all pissed off, and that was that.”
Godard and Jagger may have been done with each other, but Richmond wasn’t done with the Rolling Stones. About six months after filming them recording “Sympathy for the Devil,” he worked on their Rock and Roll Circus movie, planned as a TV special, but not officially released until 1996. Allen Klein, then handling the Stones’ business affairs, “sent me to Paris to get these special cameras, and also to see Brigitte Bardot, to try to talk her into being the ringmaster,” Tony reveals. “Which would have been fantastic. She couldn’t do it, because she was too busy. But she would loved to have done it.”
The special itself featured not just the Stones, but also the Who, Marianne Faithfull, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, and “the Dirty Mac,” an ad hoc supergroup with John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Mitch Mitchell.
“You see the most incredible 24 hours,” Richmond feels. “That was just an incredible thing to shoot. We’ve just done the restoration of that too. I recalibrated it in Dolby Vision, so it looks absolutely amazing.”
If it was so good, why wasn’t it broadcast back in 1969? “I know exactly why it didn’t come out at the time. When Mick saw it, he didn’t like it. Because the Stones were good, but the Who were absolutely electric. He wanted to re-shoot the Stones sequence again. I think the Stones came on at about 2 o’clock in the morning, and they’d been there all day. Mick felt they weren’t as good as the Who.
“They couldn’t do it straight away, because they were contracted to do something else. Also we’d broken the circus down, and we’d have to re-get that. Then Brian died [in July 1969], so it didn’t happen. Mick was so disappointed with that performance.”
But “I think it’s fantastic. That’s a great piece of rock history.”
The Stones performing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at the Rock and Roll Circus:
Not long after that, Richmond worked on Let It Be, where the Beatles “were gonna do a spectacular for television. Paul McCartney wanted to do it in the Coliseum in Rome. George wanted to do it on an Indian reservation in Taos, New Mexico. Ringo thought it would be a good idea going across the Atlantic on the QE2. I thought that was wonderful – I wanted to be involved in that.”
Ultimately, of course, they decided, “‘let’s do a concert on the roof.’ And that was the last time they played together.”
Adds Tony, “I recalibrated it a few years ago, and it was gonna be released on DVD. From what I understand, that is being held up by George Harrison’s estate and Yoko Ono. All the extras they could cram onto that Blu-Ray, there was some fantastic footage of the dissension between them all. You see it happening a little bit in the film, but nothing like what really was going on.
“In the outtakes, there’s so much disagreement, dissension, that’s probably what they don’t want. But everybody knew they didn’t like each other at the end. What does it matter? It’s years and years ago. Why shouldn’t we see that? It’s not gonna harm the ones that are alive, and it’s not gonna harm the ones that are dead. I think it should [come out]. It’s the rise and fall of a massive group.”
Richmond went on to a still-ongoing cinematography career, his resume including Stardust, the Who documentary The Kids Are Alright, and the Nicolas Roeg films The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don’t Look Now, and Bad Timing. Currently “I’ve been to asked to shoot a remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s [1965 science fiction film] Alphaville, which I really want to do.”
As for Sympathy for the Devil, does he think it will be more appreciated—in its totality, not just for its documentation of a key Stones song—with its re-release decades later?
“I think that the movie now is more relevant fifty years later than it was then,” maintains Richmond. “Godard was, and still is, a political animal. All that stuff in the junkyard’s fascinating, when they’re quoting Eldridge Cleaver and people like that. And nothing has changed. There’s still the same problems. It seems that they’re re-reviewing it now, and seeing it as a different movie, and probably quite an important piece on two levels. One for the Stones, and one for the rest of the movie. People are liking it.” When it screened recently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art with Tony in attendance, “the audience really got it, they loved it.
“That’s why it’s more relevant now than it was then. People just got so pissed off with it, with Godard. They didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand the really simple premise—creation and destruction, they’re both the same. Art is never finished, and destruction never stops.”