There’s a good chance that after TIFF plays the controversial rock and roll documentary Cocksucker Blues for free this Friday as part of a retrospective of works by photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank, you may never see it again for decades or possibly ever again at all. It’s a film of such staggering rarity that it’s amazing it has been able to stay relatively under wraps for so long (available admittedly for decades on shitty looking, patently unwatchable bootlegs and traded for the longest time as sort of a “Holy Grail” of rock iconography). This look at The Rolling Stones and their first post-Altamont tour of the United States in 1972 pulls even fewer punches with the band than Albert and David Maysles did only a few years prior with their documentary Gimme Shelter, but with far more damning possibilities than the band potentially being blamed for causing a riot due to unsafe organization and security conditions.
Frank, who will have more films showing in this month’s Free Screen series this month than just this one, followed Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor (who would quit shortly after this tour for his own perceived sense of self preservation), Charlie Watts, and Bill Wyman on their tour of the U.S. to promote what would soon become their most iconic album, Exile on Main St. Shooting with co-cameraman and sound operator Danny Seymour, the purpose of Cocksucker (named after a rejected piano ballad penned by Jagger to piss off their record label that can be heard in the film) was to create an even grungier fly on the wall account of the band, shooting in 16mm black and white with only the filmmaking duo acting as crew and occasionally handing cameras over to band members to shoot footage themselves.
The ultimate results were more than anyone in the band had bargained for, but showed how and why Frank was one of the best known and most respected photographers of the era. For all of the great and decidedly less than controversial bits that capture how the boys liked to keep things low key at times on the road and the often exhausting banality of having to do press and constantly wait around in hotel rooms for them to be called upon, there was a lot of material the band never wanted to get out.
Remembering that sex, drugs, and rock and roll have always been forever entwined, Frank never shies away from including the latter two elements. Band members are snorting and shooting up at an alarming rate. At one point Keith, while holding the hand of a beautiful young woman in a dressing room, simply nods off entirely while sitting up straight on a bench with no backing. There a particularly disturbing, graphically sexual, and downright orgiastic plane ride with the band that no one in their right mind could ever spin into something positive to say. Perhaps most damning of all for the band was that while Frank is obviously cutting together a warts and all look at a talented band and their excesses, it’s the blasé displayed by its members that feels so off putting. It’s a portrait of excess characterized by people for whom such aggrandizing behaviour has become a boring norm.
The film’s release was quickly scuttled by the band, but for what it’s worth they don’t necessarily seem to hate the film but would rather not have to deal with all the questions and potential criminal investigations that would arise from it coming out. A lengthy lawsuit between Frank and the band ultimately led to the film only being screened under rigid circumstances: it could only be screened no more than four or five times a year around the world and Frank would have to be present for every screening. This says nothing of an opening title card suggesting everything in the film is a work of fiction, which reeks of more than slightly dubious backtracking not only by The Stones, but also somewhat of Frank who was clearly complicit in what he was seeing, and definitely of “junkie cameraman” Seymour, who would himself pass away as a direct result of his own drug use.
In recent years, attitudes towards the film have relaxed a bit, but its future is still uncertain. It will never in a not-so-hyperbolic million years ever see a theatrical release even after everyone involved has passed on. Frank, now pushing 90 but still an active publisher of works, never has to be at every screening, but it can still only be screened as special one-off screenings at cinephile themed events such as the one put on by TIFF. It’s hard to say if the band would even allow it to be seen once Frank passes on without someone present to give the film “a proper context,” but it looks like they are leaning towards letting the film live on a bit longer. Either way, you probably won’t have a chance to catch this one again for at least a decade on the big screen, if at all, making this an immeasurably rare free screening.
And while Cocksucker Blues is certainly the centrepiece of the series, TIFF has gone beyond just a one evening screening of Frank’s works to showcase other films made by one of America’s best photojournalists. Arising from his work on his landmark 1958 long form photo essay The Americans, Frank first adopted his shooting style for film while following around beat legends Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in the Jack Kerouac narrated Pull My Daisy, which will screen on Saturday evening at the Lightbox with two vastly more personal shorts for Frank. In 1969’s Conversations from Vermont, Frank visits his own children, Pablo and Andrea, at a boarding school, often shedding light on his own shortcomings as a parent. In 1980s emotionally raw Life Dances On, Frank is forced into dealing with the death of his daughter in a Guatemalan plane crash head on
Sunday brings a trio of shorts that Frank made while living in Mabou, Nova Scotia in the latter half of his life (Home Improvements from 1985, The Present from 1996, and True Story from 2006). Monday night, there’s a screening of Frank’s other frequently tinkered with metatextual feature Me and My Brother (which was worked on from 1965-68 and again in 1997), which follows the relationship between previous subject Allen Ginsberg, his lover Peter Orlovsky, and Peter’s recently released from an asylum brother Julius as they attempt a tumultuous road trip. Part documentary, part fiction, and almost unnervingly fascinating, it’s probably closest to Cocksucker Blues in terms of unflinching tone. And while it would be great to see some of Frank’s photography make its way up here for an exhibition at a local gallery in the near future, this weekend long retrospective of his film work should satisfy appetites nicely.
Hold Still – Keep Going: Films by Robert Frank kicks off at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto this Friday. All screenings and programmes are free of charge with tickets available at the venue box office on the day of the show. For a full list of films and showtimes, please visit TIFF.NET.