Many iconic filmmakers have shot footage of legendary bands in action, most notably Martin Scorsese who has developed a reputation for being a music documentarian. French New Wave maestro Jean-Luc Godard also tried his hand at documenting the creative process of the Rolling Stones and ended up incorporating them into his avant-garde film.
Titled Sympathy for the Devil, Godard oscillates between various genres throughout the work. Containing fiction as well as documentary footage, the film is another analysis of the structures of capitalism by Godard who has conducted such investigations throughout his career. However, it started out as a different project.
When Godard moved to London in 1968 to make a new project, his initial plans included a film about abortion. However, the abortion issue got less attention following the 1967 Abortion Act which is why he decided to drop the idea. Instead, he put out a conditional offer that he would shoot a film in London if the Beatles or the Rolling Stones agreed to appear in his project.
While the Beatles turned him down, the Stones told the director that they would be delighted to work with him. Although there are some fantastic scenes featuring the Rolling Stones which deconstruct the very idea of musical celebrity, Sympathy for the Devil isn’t a music documentary since its primary concerns are different.
Featuring intercut footage of various subjects, the film meditates on different issues such as Black Power, societal perceptions of the female body and the pernicious influences of capitalism. Despite the fact that Sympathy for the Devil isn’t considered to be among Godard’s finest works, it is still fascinating.
In addition to its avant-garde political filmmaking, it also chronicles the evolution of the titular song by the Stones. “I knew it was a good song,” Mick Jagger revealed in an interview. “You just have this feeling. It had its poetic beginning, and then it had historic references and then philosophical jottings and so on.”
During the same session, he was asked to explain why the song was considered to be so powerful. The legendary icon replied: “It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove.”
The footage was shot during the recording seasons of Beggars Banquet by the Stones at Olympic Recording Studios in London. When the first version of the film was released, Godard ensured that the creative process behind the song was left unfinished but it was later added to the film because it would have been much worse without it.
Watch the footage below.