Sympathy For The Devil Review
Before the Rolling Stones became involved, Jean-Luc Godard’s film, intended by the director to be called One + One, started out initially as a film about abortion. But as part of the bid to lure the controversial director Jean-Luc Godard across to the UK to apply his unique perspective on the highly charged political events and issues of the day, the deal was sweetened by allowing him access to film the Stones during the ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ recording sessions of the song Sympathy For The Devil.
Godard arrived in the UK then at a time of heightened worldwide political tensions, with people becoming increasingly aware of the cost of the Vietnam War, and with students rioting on the streets of Paris. Godard himself was at his most politicised, with recent films such as La Chinoise (1967) and most explosively Weekend (1967), increasingly distancing himself from traditional filmmaking, which he had come to regard as cultural imperialism. His ideas for One + One rapidly changed and evolved, it’s bipartite structure playing out as a dialectic between creation (the recording of a song by the Rolling Stones) and destruction (the political climate that was giving rise to uprising and resistance, most notably through the Black Power movement).
The film consequently alternately switches between scenes of the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman) in a recording studio and various tableaux representing the struggle by the black man against the oppression, the relationship between youth and democracy and the fascism of soi-disant culture. The sequences of the Rolling Stones jamming, rehearsing and recording Sympathy For The Devil are all filmed in flowing 10-minute single-take long tracking, crane shots and pans and are quite electric, showing the band recording one of their most potent songs, about the Kennedy family, assassination and the seduction of evil. We see the song go through various stages, from a raw, acoustic ballad, through to it’s full-on use of tribal beats and dirty blues guitar rhythms, all appropriated of course from black culture. In between, Godard creates a number of his absurd, political situations, extended versions of the playful skits used in La Chinoise, but holding the full excoriating anger that had burst forth in Weekend, showing black men in a junkyard reading from militant texts, decrying the loss of black culture, racism, and the need to struggle for a black identity, all the while arming themselves for struggle against the white man. To add to this potent mix, there are the usual Godardian intertitles – used to divide each of the alternating sections – and painting of slogans on walls, protesting inevitably against American imperialism, the CIA and Vietnam, and readings from a lurid, pornographic espionage novel invoking major real-life political and religious leaders.
At this period, and thereafter, Godard would constantly try to evolve cinema away from the traditional format to extend its possibilities and find a new holistic language to express thoughts and ideas, using words, images, music, literature – philosophical, sociological, lurid pulp fiction and even slogans painted on walls – to see what one brings out of the other when they are placed together. Here, he taps into the mood and character of a certain period – the sixties, the Stones, Black Power, Malcolm X, The Black Panthers, Mao, Vietnam, Marxist-Leninism – and the film is practically a lexicon of all the counter-culture buzzwords of the period, of youth movements and a revolutionary spirit. Through them Godard is trying to understand how the modern young person and intellectual revolutionary should react to the world around them. Sympathy With The Devil is then, by turns, fascinating and tedious, inspired and laboured, sublime and didactic, occasionally hitting on moments of genius, but more often descending into obscurity, ineffectual sloganeering and pose, that never seems to get to the heart of anything tangible. As ever with Godard though, it’s the intangible moments when it connects with something beyond what anyone else can achieve with the cinematic medium that makes Godard’s films and this one in particular, still worth watching.
Sympathy For The Devil is released on DVD in the UK by Fabulous Pictures. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and the DVD is encoded for Region 2. The film is chaptered correctly, according to the divisions of the film, so if you are only watching this for the performance of the Rolling Stones, it is quite easy to programme the disc to only play alternate chapters. Just don’t let JLG know I suggested you re-edit his film.
The picture quality on Sympathy For The Devil and One + One is generally excellent. The image is colourful, bright and clear showing quite superb sharpness and detail. There is an absence of any troublesome grain and the image is perfectly stable. Other than one or two little marks that pop up now and again around the end of reels, this is virtually flawless.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack is rudimentary – which is typical of Godard’s sound mixes and how it is intended to be. Also typically, it’s a busy soundtrack that the rough mono mix with layers of sounds (overhead planes, background music, on-screen dialogue and voice-over reading) is barely capable of effectively separating. There is a certain amount of analogue noise, but no real problems. This is probably as faithful to the original as you would expect.
The film’s dialogue is all in English and there are no subtitles provided for either the feature or extra features.
The extra features for this DVD release are quite superb. As well as the theatrical release of the film, we also have the full One + One Director’s Cut (1:36:34) of the film under its original title, which is actually slightly shorter than the theatrical release (1:37:11). The only significant difference is in the final sequence of the Stones recording session, where in the theatrical release of the film, the producer added a final mix of the song Sympathy For The Devil over the footage of the band jamming in a circle. It might not seem like much, but apparently it was deemed significant enough for Jean-Luc Godard to punch the producer at the premiere of the film. “Voices” Documentary is a film by Richard Mordaunt, documenting the making of the film. As well as a great deal of behind the scenes footage, there are interviews with Godard and clips of news items and speeches, illustrating the period well. A Still Photo Gallery contains 66 superb colour and black & white photographs as well as a promo gallery of 5 film posters. The Trailer (2:22) makes the film look quite phenomenal. Biographies are included for the Stones, for Marianne Faithful and Anita Pallenberg (who can be seen during the recording sessions) as well as producer Ian Quarrier and Jean-Luc Godard. One Plus One = Chaos is an excellent text essay on the film’s troubled production and history by Robert Ross.
Another of Jean-Luc Godard’s experiments with the cinematic medium, Sympathy For The Devil has some moments of brilliance – certainly in its concept, structure and working method – but is mostly very dated and pretentious in terms of its political content. The experiment is a bold one and it does yield some surprising results in the juxtaposition of its separate but overlapping sections and ideas. The footage of The Rolling Stones is certainly worth viewing on its own and captures something magical about the period, but to do so would be to miss the point. What that point is can be difficult to define, but it is very much up to the individual reviewer to form their own response and connection with the film. In terms of presentation, this release could hardly be better, with a stunning transfer, inclusion of both the Theatrical Release and the Director’s Cut, a Making Of documentary and plenty of context setting extra features.