Nothing looms quite like something you can’t see, and in the 42 years since Robert Frank shot his vérité documentary account of the Rolling Stones’ North American tour of 1972, CS Blues has taken on the aura of a darkly magical and mysterious forbidden artifact. Blocked from release by the band, the film – by the renowned Beat-era Swiss still photographer who had designed the photo collage cover of Exile on Main St. – is possibly the most bootlegged, sought-after and, it now seems, misunderstood film in rock-movie history.
It is permitted only single screenings once a year in cities where the filmmaker has been present – although Frank, now 89, is not expected to appear at the Toronto screening, presented as part of the TIFF Cinematheque’s Free Screen series today at 6:30 p.m. at the Bell Lightbox. Captured with Frank’s deftly unobtrusive 16-millimetre camera, CS Blues takes its full, proper title (which sounds a lot like Cork Shucker Blues) and its tone from a song about dissolute gay hustling that Mick Jagger composed to render null the band’s contract with Decca Records.
If the song, never officially released, occupies the mournful place where desire has been corrupted, hope abandoned and the soul ruined by the body’s wholesale surrender to fleeting pleasure, CS Blues is that state configured as one of the most beautifully listless, dreamily anesthetized and utterly unsensational rock docs ever made. Rampant drug use, wanton groupie abuse and gratuitously defenestrated hotel TV sets notwithstanding, Frank’s movie is about fame as a supreme drag and protracted state of existential limbo. It is a condition best captured by the recurring sight of a junked-out Keith Richards nodding off into habitual oblivion.
Since arriving on the mid-fifties global cultural scene with The Americans, a book of photographs that depicted Eisenhower’s domestic empire as a sprawling kingdom of grim flyover loneliness, Frank had become famous for his jaundiced but immaculate stranger’s-eye view of the United States. This was precisely what his lens regarded when the Rolling Stones embarked on their first American tour since the 1969 debacle (so famously captured in Gimme Shelter, by Albert and David Maysles) at Altamont Speedway, at which a fan was killed, on camera, by Hells Angels security goons.
If that movie marked the end of the myth of the Stones as a people’s rock band – or, as has been widely suggested, the end of the sixties dream of peaceful, universal co-existence – CS Blues is a cold report from the other side of the castle wall: This is what living inside the fame fortress is really like, where insulation from fans, immersion in perpetual indulgence, and life lived as a holding pattern between performances – which were, it must be said, as exciting as any in rock history – seemingly verifies the Devil’s pact in Sympathy for the Devil, where the price of fame, wealth and beauty is the soul laid to waste.
If the Stones were horrified by what they saw – and that’s how the story goes – what is now clearer than ever is that they were right to be, and not because of the cheaply sensational images of naked groupies, Mick playing trouser billiards, or drugs being consumed at an industrial level. It’s because their lives look so pathetically, fundamentally and irredeemably sad. Whether it’s Richards perpetually nodding off, Jagger’s world-class yawn or Bianca’s transfixed stare at a music box, the story told here is of the living death that fame imposes; and the revelation, much more subversive than smack or groupie sex, that it sucks to be a Stone.
Unfolding largely in such transient zones as hotel rooms, dressing rooms, airports, airplanes and lobbies, and fleetingly visited by such period celebrity pilot fish as Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Dick Cavett and Lee Radziwill, this account of a Stone’s life circa ’72 is a gorgeously rendered, vaporously grainy, sustained stupor of a movie. It is a neglected high point of its particular documentary style, a radical subversion of rock mythology and a lingeringly unsettling work of art.
At the age of 15, I’d have traded my youngest sibling into white slavery in order to see it, but that was when I’d have confused it for a movie about my favourite band on Earth. And it would have disappointed if not crushed me, as the Stones knew when they threw down the block to its release. It was the last movie about themselves they wanted anyone to see, let alone those who wished to be one of them. Along with Nixon’s tapes, CS Blues was 1972’s other great act of omission.