The staid walls of a major metropolitan museum are hardly the proper setting for the destruction of property, chronic use of a class A controlled substance, or semi-consensual sex aboard a mid-sized private jet (at least if the board of trustees has its say), but in recent years that’s the main environment in which Robert Frank’s cinema vérité documentary about the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour of America, Cocksucker Blues, has been available to the public. When Mick Jagger had a look at what Mr. Frank had pieced together from all the access the band had given him, the film was almost completely suppressed. A 1977 court ruling favored Mr. Frank slightly; the film could be screened no more than four times a year, only in the presence of the director or an associate in an “archival setting,” hence the museums.
Last week, the Museum of Modern Art screened the film on the opening night of their “Rolling Stones: 50 Years on Film” retrospective.
“On behalf of MoMA Film,” said Joshua Siegel, a curator in the museum’s film department who organized the exhibition, “welcome to, uh, Cocksucker Blues. A sentence I never thought I’d utter.”
The screening opened with a short silent film by Mr. Frank of footage shot during the making of Exile on Main Street, the album the 1972 tour was meant to support. It was a series of Godard-inspired quick cuts of the Stones looking like angry young men amid bucolic scenery and, near the end, a too-long montage of a homeless man trying to clean peoples’ windshields in a traffic jam. Two members of the audience, perhaps under the influence of one of the many substances Keith Richards demonstrates in the film, devolved into the giggles almost immediately.
The title is explained early on, by the band’s manager Marshall Chess, who relates his idea of creating a “pornographic record” to get the Stones out of their contract with Decca. “Oh where can I get my cock sucked?” Mick Jagger sings in the vaguely more-printable half of the lyrical couplet that comprises the song’s chorus.
As the tour progressed, Mr. Chess progressed into heroin addiction, like a lot of the people in the Stones’ inner circle. The drug starts out as shadowy, secondary character in the movie—Mr. Frank makes a point of filming a number of especially morose hangovers and gives the train tracks on Mr. Richards’ arms a fine supporting role. But it doesn’t take long before a groupie, seen earlier on the band’s jet briefly engaging in the film’s title act, shoots up on camera.
The band does play music in between these scenes of bacchanalia. “Midnight Rambler,” spliced together from various gigs, is especially strong, but it’s less entertaining than the scenes of people just hanging out: Keith Richards staring nervously at the camera as he rolls up a dollar bill and readies a nostril; Charlie Watts intently studying an advertisement for Excedrin; Mick Jagger licking an ice cream cone—the sole footage of anyone eating anything in the whole film—as his face recoils in disgust. (Mick Jagger’s mouth in the film makes an appearance in the Don DeLillo novel Underworld: “You have to interpret that mouth like it’s satire,” Mr. DeLillo writes.) The scene where Mr. Richards and Bobby Keys, the band’s sax player, throw a TV out the window seems too good to be true, and is a rare occasion where anyone seems to be playing to the camera.
When the screening was over, people stood outside the museum’s entrance exchanging congratulatory handshakes. Rolling Stone magazine’s David Fricke—dressed like Johnny Ramone circa 1975—embraced MTV’s Kurt Loder. It was like we had all joined an elite club. (Dubbed “Cocksuckers,” perhaps, as an editor from Harper’s suggested.)
In recent years, of course, the film has lost a bit of its mythological spark. Cocksucker Blues is currently available on YouTube, where it has been viewed, as of this writing, about 28,350 times.