I cannot overstate the rarity of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s upcoming screenings of Cocksucker Blues (1972), nor my excitement about it. This is the Halley’s Comet of film documents, and a holy grail of legendary rock docs. In fact, if you already know something about it, then you might want to stop reading, go ahead and get tickets online now before they sell out and come back to this article once you’ve secured a spot.
Swiss-American photographer Robert Frank is best known for the groundbreaking book The Americans—an essay comprising photographs he took along his cross-country travels 1955-58—and for his early, underground Beat film, Pull My Daisy (1959), a collaboration with Jack Kerouac and painter Alfred Leslie. (Much of this early work was shown at the MFAH in the summer as part of their American Made exhibition.)
Lesser known to most—or, in some circles, well known but famously unseen—is Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, a film documenting rock group The Rolling Stones along their 1972 U.S. tour. It was never distributed and, in fact, blocked by the band from being shown, save for a handful of screenings over the years and some very poor quality, n-th generation bootlegs traded among music nerds.
Cocksucker Blues (the title refers to a notorious Stones song submitted as a final “fuck you” to Decca Records before they departed and started up their own label) is an odd, funny, tedious and fascinating film document depicting the group, their followers and life on the road. Using small, handheld cameras, Robert Frank’s grainy black-and-white photography finds people and moments—most real, some staged—in excessive sex play, drug use, hijinks and boredom between shows, with scattered concert performances shot in saturated color bursting through with raw energy.
At the time, the group was fractured (to say the least) by financial issues, management change, personal relationships, differing artistic interests and most of all, heavy drug use by some of its members and entourage. The album “Exiles On Main St.” was just as fractured, with songs recorded in various studios over three years, often without all band members present at the same time. Now largely considered a classic and one of their best albums, at the time of its release, fans and critics had to sit with it for a long while before appreciating “Exile.” The double album, with its different styles, long jams, odd mixes and few “hits” was saved, in a way, by its cover art. The photomontage sprawling across its four sides quilted images of the band taken by Robert Frank, as well as photos taken from Frank’s The Americans series. The intriguing imagery and odd juxtapositions gave the sense that the album’s music was not just a sloppily assembled shark-jump, but rather (or at least additionally) a complex, layered collage and an important new work. The cover provided encouragement to take time with it, and a sea of evocative images to engage with while listening. Before embarking on their 1972 North American tour in support of the album (their first tour here since the 1969 disaster at the Altamont Free Concert), Jagger invited Frank to chronicle the band’s journey.
While it follows one of the greatest rock bands in an important phase, Cocksucker Blues is no ordinary documentary, and not really a music film. Generally categorized as cinéma vérité, it’s much more subjectively engaged than a simple fly-on-the-wall film, and more experimental than a historic profile. Frank, arguably the best example of a still photographer’s successful transition to filmmaker, is drawn to shooting the normally unseen rough edges and odd moments along the tour in hotel rooms, planes, rehearsals, green rooms, parking lots. The camera often moves away from the band to find tangential satellites and interactions—a woman’s reaction to them, or a cat walking across the room.
At first, the straying attention, off-kilter compositions and nearly continual camera movement may seem easy—even sloppy and amateurish. (This is emphasized by the fact that Frank gave cameras to band members and included some of their footage.) The scarcity of concert footage (great stuff, but only a handful of songs) and complete lack of informational titles may be off-putting to those expecting a normal concert doc or VH1 “Behind The Music”-style program. But Frank’s approach of unabashedly showing and involving the viewer in the process of looking becomes hypnotic, then completely engaging, then somehow personal experience. Believe me, that’s not easy to achieve. The film’s handheld camerawork should be the envy of all those young cinematographers currently attempting “shakey-style” authenticity in their movies.
The most amazing thing about Cocksucker Blues is that it happened at all. Robert Frank had no interest promoting, sensationalizing, or immortalizing the band. He was not an adoring fan, nor a PR guy, nor a photographer for hire. Frank was an artist, commissioned to make his own film along the journey of the tour. He made clear to the group what he was interested in doing, and that if they ever said no to any of his ideas or filming, he would abandon the project. That was the deal, the band was game and the result is truly unique.
Along with, and much more than Frank’s images on the album cover, this film helps to reveal what the title “Exiles On Main St.” may really mean. Viewers are brought inside a peculiar travelling circus—a bubble that totally excludes the outside world, and in which wild life, frictions and harsh juxtapositions are all part of the boring daily wait between shows. Tina Turner, Dick Cavett, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Princess Lee Radziwill, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, Jagger’s then-wife Bianca and other notables briefly visit the bubble, reminding us of its location in space, time and culture. There is a great and odd performance with opening act Stevie Wonder. But more present are the groupies, junkies, crew members and the band members themselves—exiled, waiting ‘til nightfall to make their powerful sound.
It’s generally understood that the group liked, or at least appreciated the film—unofficially, that is. But it was too messy, real, confusing, dangerous and personally painful for them to officially claim. What they’d ended up with was a tour documentary that contained more roving tangents than through-line, more hotel room boredom than performance footage and more questionable and even illegal activity than was safe to be associated with publicly. Giving Robert Frank funding and carte blanche had been the most brilliant and simultaneously the most disastrously awful idea ever. He had done what he set out to do a little too well, which was to make a Robert Frank film. The Stones buried it—immediately and completely. Frank was prohibited from showing it at all for years, then later they reached an agreement stating he could show it once a year, but it had to be within the context of his work (not the Stones’) and the filmmaker had to be present. This has loosened up just a tiny bit in the last year, but the film will likely never receive proper distribution or an official approval from the group.
In 1986, when the Museum of Fine Arts Houston was preparing its Robert Frank retrospective, the museum purchased many of his photographs for their collection and also became the official archive and distributor of Frank’s films, giving his life’s work a better home than his closet. This special relationship is why, of the handful of Cocksucker screenings over the past few decades, and of the few in the world that will happen this year, Houston is so privileged to have one.
The last time Cocksucker Blues was shown here was in ’86 as part of the museum’s retrospective. It was held at the now defunct Tower Theater, and more than a few well-to-do museum supporters fled the theater within the first five minutes. The museum’s current web listing warns in all caps “FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY.” Both now and 27 years ago, I can’t imagine that the title would not sufficiently tip off potential audiences to the uncivilized experience of the film. But just in case, I’ll tell you: Don’t bring the kiddies, or your conservative cousin, or your grandmother. And if you are at all uneasy with unusual filmmaking, the possibility that the Rolling Stones are just human beings and not gods and/or my repeated use of the word “cocksucker” in this article, don’t bring yourself. That would just waste the limited seats available to witness this elusive masterpiece.
Dir. Robert Frank, USA, color and b/w, 93 minutes
Museum of Fine Arts Houston
March 29 & 30, 7 p.m.
Special ticket prices: $20 ($5 discount for members, students and seniors)
Info and ticket purchase here.