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Sympathy for the Devil

Sympathy for the Devil

One Plus One

Jean-Luc Godard

UK, 1968

Credits

Review by Rod Bastanmehr

Posted on 08 December 2010

Source Abkco DVD

External links

Related music at Doom & Gloom from the Tomb

Categories Rock Follies

In theory, the union of Jean-Luc Godard and Mick Jagger (tight lens and tight pants, respectively) is just what the end of the sixties needed. One had spent the decade redefining film; the other, music. The goal of Godard’s first English-language film is in typical Godard fashion meant to seep in rather than be seen, but by the end you can almost feel him screaming for the essence of the picture to come through clearer.

Sympathy For The Devil, as the title suggests, revolves around the Rolling Stones song of the same name. We open at the pinnacle of pop: walls comprised of green, orange, and yellow panels; stools and chairs scattered about, different shades of pink and accompanying fuschia. Here is where the boys play: Mick Jagger sits strumming a guitar; Godard, like a fascinated younger brother (despite being thirteen years the singer’s senior), spins the camera around him, catching every second.

Godard’s love of all things American hits a sugar high in Sympathy. When Mick Jagger graces the frame, with every inch of his bone structure explored in long take, Godard’s linger might as well be a love letter. Regardless of his English blood, Mick Jagger oozes American cool, or the kind of cool Americans readily embraced. Cross-legged and barefoot, he slams on a conga drum while jutting his head back and forth. Here, Godard and Jagger are both free.

As the end of the sixties approached, a decade which saw Godard’s own rise to relevance, an uneven political terrain was encroaching upon the arts as an avenue of escapism. Increasingly, realism – the chaos beyond the screen – became the essence of cinema. Rock demigods like The Rolling Stones would come to exemplify the kind of liberation that Godard and his New Wave compatriots had cinematically spearheaded. Freedom, both in concept and practice, is central to Sympathy for the Devil. Where the Stones play at total liberation, Godard knows better. He pans around the room, giving us a glance at the producers standing idly behind the glass. And when they can’t find a rhythm that satisfies, the band fractures.

This tension is, for Godard, the perfect breaking point. His films had always been infused with the lifeblood of rock and roll, jagged, fast, aggressive. As far as Godard is concerned, the Rolling Stones are the world. Everything in here is everything out there. Godard believes this, but he can’t sit still, and soon he cuts to a woman spray painting two intersecting words on a window: “Hilton” and “Stalin.”

The trials and tribulations of the Rolling Stones in the studio soon give way to the perils of political upheaval. Scenes featuring an African American revolutionary group are intercut with moments of studio vulnerability. These Panthers throw rifles to one another as they spit the political prose of Eldridge Cleaver. They are prepping for war, for turmoil, and the first inklings of a potential global revolution begin to sprout like weeds.

Of course the Stones are on the verge of their own collapse, which is just how Godard wants it. Brian Jones slowly abandons the group, and as he does we follow Eve Democracy, a curious woman who’s being chased by a filmmaker. There is no distance between the two worlds that Godard inhabits at once. For a filmmaker for whom realism is the essence of cinema, his most surrealist approaches often convey the dissolving counterculture more acutely.

Godard is both the perfect match for Sympathy and, perhaps, its biggest problem. If anyone understood the dizzying shifts in modern culture, it was he, who liberated the camera while his viewers liberated themselves. The Stones are, for Godard, both a reaction to the larger disorder and a strange microcosm of it. And this breaking of the cinematic wall is a tool used perhaps strongest when we see Brian Jones’ slow disillusionment. His demeanor is visibly distant, culminating in one of the film’s final scenes when, as the camera pans around the band jamming out, Jones sits on the opposite side of the studio wall, writing by himself, isolated.

But at its core, the central tension lies within the title song itself. While the culture crashes outside, the melody continues to fumble. They adjust lyrics for adjusting times: a line about the Kennedy assassination (“I shouted out, ‘Who killed Kennedy?’ / When after all, it was you and me”) is, by the end of the film, true for John’s brother Robert too, and is thus pluralized. We go back and forth, until finally in the film’s last moments, the song plays in full. The band seems to be playing their instruments, with Jagger’s back turned to us. But the hands drop of their instruments, and Jagger, young and boyish, takes a sip of a latté while the song continues. The song playing over the film is not the band live, we realize, but instead the recording, the finished product (an inclusion that Godard himself vehemently opposed during the film’s post-production).

It’s the film’s attempt at catharsis: the song, the source of the tension, finally completed, blaring triumphantly. But Godard fails to give the political tension a satisfactory moment of completion. True, Eve Democracy, Godard’s personification of ideology, finds herself bloodied and dead, hanging off a dolly, lifeless as the camera pans to the camera filming the camera and colors flood the screen. But this sense of completion, that the difficulties of its production have finally paid off, feels wrong. Until now, the political unrest and the Stones’ very own difficulties were both mirrored and comparable. But to allow release, what kind of closure is Godard attempting? Wrapping up the narrative triumphantly on one side, while bellowing the pains of revolution on the other?

What drowns Sympathy is a desire to unify pop and politics as co-dependent. By granting peace to one, the other is left dangled, unresolved, unrevolted. It seems that Godard intends for the Stones to personify the very upheaval he documents in the exterior scenes. But who the Rolling Stones were in regards to their time, exemplars of both apathy and anarchy at once, is missing here. Instead, we get the Stones as Godard wants them to be, messiahs for a revolution that he deems unfinished but still possible. The world outside the studio is filed with brutal reality. Inside the studio, within these four multi-colored walls, the Stones stay too safe, too strong; the band finds shelter.

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