Guitar, bass, drums, Bolex.
When the Rolling Stones embarked on a two-day Irish tour in 1965, the hand-held 16mm movie camera that had sparked an international revolution in documentary filmmaking – and given rise to the on-the-run style that the French would christen cinéma vérité – was almost as key an instrument in the rise of rock culture as fashion, attitude, the baby boom or even the music itself.
Since falling into the eager hands of filmmakers around the world, the unprecedentedly portable 16mm movie camera had detonated the old form of highly controlled, staged and stentoriously pedantic documentary – largely a delivery system for state and political propaganda – and created something fresh, new and vital from the rubble. Filmmakers could now immerse themselves in their subject’s worlds and observe life in something resembling its actual form, a development that effectively altered the very paradigm of non-fiction moviemaking.
Where the documentary filmmaker’s function pre-hand-held had been to impose a kind of narrative structure on the raw material of reality, it was now to be as unobtrusive and non-interventionist as possible. It was to get out of the way of unfolding reality and let the truth speak for itself, a principle that was as initially energizing and exciting as it ultimately became contentious and conventional. You could practise it only as long as you believed the camera’s presence didn’t alter reality as much as it recorded it, which meant the form had a lifespan that really lasted only as long as the sixties themselves. Then, as with so many other expressions of the decade’s naive idealism, it foundered. Meanwhile, vérité was the bomb.
Historically fused with the form because of their appearance in the Maysles brothers’ vérité classic Gimme Shelter, which followed the 1969 tour and culminated in the deadly events at Altamont Speedway, the Stones had already been the subject of hand-held scrutiny in Charlie is My Darling, an hour-long, on-the-spot portrait of the band on the run that is only now being widely released (on DVD and Blu-ray).
Originally directed by Peter Whitehead (and re-directed for 2012 release by Mick Gochanour), Charlie is My Darling was conceived by the band’s then-manager Andrew Loog Oldham as a kind of extended promo clip for what he saw as the Stones’ inevitable rise to motion-picture glory. The faux documentary A Hard Day’s Night was surely in his mind, as perhaps was the National Film Board’s seminal vérité pop doc Lonely Boy (about Paul Anka), and maybe even the almost contemporaneously shot Don’t Look Back, which was being made about Bob Dylan’s tour of England right around the time the Stones split for Ireland.
Hired for his established reputation as a chronicler of England’s emerging youth culture, Whitehead plunged as deeply into the still-emerging Stones phenomenon as a weekend permitted, and it certainly helped matters that Satisfaction had just hit the top of the British charts.
The kids in Ireland were as whipped up to see the band as any that greeted the Beatles the previous year in the States. Following the musicians as they’re ushered through airports, train stations and hotel lobbies, where they are grabbed, kissed and hugged by fans, Whitehead captures a highly fleeting hinge point in this now most monolithically iconic of sixties rock history: a time when fame was really just occurring, when it was still possible for Mick Jagger to imagine the band busting up in a year or two, and when fans could rush the stage by the dozens – which they do, in the movie’s most amazing (and Altamont-anticipating) sequence.
While four of the Stones (Jagger, Brian Jones, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts) sat still enough to be interviewed by Whitehead, and while these moments are fascinating for their hindsight revelations, it’s the intimate, inside glimpse of imminent massive pop fame that gives the movie its irresistible archival fascination and visceral charge. That and the reminder of how an evolution in the medium triggered a revolution in the message.