Friday, February 15, 2013

Hearing History: Peter Whitehead's Charlie is My Darling

Toward the end of Charlie Is My Darling – Peter Whitehead’s documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1965 Ireland stopover, recently recovered, restored, and released on DVD – bassist Bill Wyman is informed that a young female fan fractured a leg in the mob rush that followed that night’s show. “Oh,” he sighs, appearing as genuinely distressed as it is possible for someone as inexpressive as Bill Wyman to appear. His response calls back the moment in Gimme Shelter (1970), chronicle of the group’s 1969 US tour, when Mick Jagger, after viewing footage of the murder that occurred while the Stones performed at the Altamont festival, murmurs, “Oh. It’s so horrible.” From a fractured leg to a knife in the back: the arc of the ‘60s is there, if you are into arcs. Other moments in the Whitehead film likewise seem ripe for omen-spotting – like the interview with Brian Jones, his speech articulate but his eyes gazing from some decadent darkness to the drugged and drunken ending he met in his swimming pool less than four years later; or the little riot that devastates a Dublin concert stage, as neatly-dressed lads and lasses maul their idols in a grade-school run-through of uglier scenes to come.

Many of us enjoy reading history backward in this way, and investing innocence with auguries of corruption. Maybe these moments aren’t really there; maybe Charlie Is My Darling is only what it seems, an unlikely retrieval from the period just before rock ‘n’ roll celebrity collided with general apocalypse and glimpsed its true soul in Keith Richards’s rotting tooth.Yet Whitehead too is clearly tempted to see a dark future foretold in his footage. The Charlie DVD contains three separate versions of the film – a new, 65-minute cut; the director’s original cut (35 minutes); the producer’s original cut (49 minutes) – and the Dublin fracas climaxes all three; but it is most lengthy in the newest, post-Altamont cut. And Wyman’s suggestive sigh is missing from the two earlier iterations.

Whitehead, a seasoned documentarian, was engaged by the Stones’ manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, to shoot the band’s brief Irish hop (two shows each in Dublin and Belfast, September 3-4, 1965). Oldham envisioned the film as a dry run for some future full-length project, and as a source of promotional material for new Stones music; it was also “an effort on my part to keep the Stones interested in the idea of film.” The result was screened only a handful of times, usually in bootlegged or otherwise adulterated form; prints were evidently stolen from Oldham’s offices, and the belief consolidated that the film was irretrievably lost. For the last decade or more, it has been assumed that Charlie Is My Darling would never be seen again. But angels of happenstance have delivered it to us—as a single DVD, single Blu-ray, or Super Deluxe limited edition box set encompassing those items plus a hardcover book, concert poster reproduction, random numbered film cell, soundtrack CD, and bonus collection of unreleased live recordings from the Stones’ 1965 UK tour, presented in both CD and 10-inch vinyl formats. (The box is for gourmands preferring a multi-course meal to a modest repast; for most of those it will be worth the cost, while anyone else will get by with one of the slimmer options.)

The Rolling Stones on tour, 1965.

Whitehead was given extensive backstage and onstage access to the Stones, and shot the band members (except for Keith) in solo interview situations. He also spoke to and/or filmed many Irish fans, cops, train conductors, lorry drivers, off-duty dockers, and airport onlookers. It’s that bit that’s most refreshing. The Rolling Stones came from the London suburbs, not the cobbled streets of Northern Ireland, but these people and scenes are far closer to their native reality than are, say, the Bay Area grotesques of Gimme Shelter. The milieu is illuminating. The Stones’ voices sound positively refined against the onslaught of undiluted brogue; their skins are creamy compared to the raw Irish faces with their freckles and bones and devil grins. Documentary-wise, we’ve usually seen the Stones in a US context – American arenas, American voices, American hustle – but never in the context of a good-humored forty-year-old Irish mother whose life of labor makes her look at least fifty, or a Belfast disc jockey who exhorts “a wee welcome” for “the Roolin’ Stoones.”

The Rolling Stones perform “It’s Alright.”
Despite the limits of a skeleton crew, the concerts seem to have been shot fairly elaborately, with at least four camera positions. The band is tight and good, even allowing for digital scrubbing and post facto patching. Jagger is vocally strong but, except for the odd jack-knifing leap or fit of ass-shaking, physically a bit subdued. The fans are half the show anyway – a boy in the footlights, watching the band and crying, in every non-pejorative sense, like a girl; the young priest in the front row, tall and straight as a pole; the fans who, pressed to specify why they dig the Stones, repeatedly and factually assert, “I like ‘em singin’.” Then comes the second show at Dublin’s Adelphi Theatre. The band gets into “It’s Alright,” Jagger and Jones rattling percussion instruments over the crowd, and suddenly a fan is onstage, leaping, touching, snatching – and then another, and then another. Soon there are more fans onstage than there are Stones, and Whitehead’s camera, pinned to a proscenium edge, poised to plummet into the pit, careens crazily with the impacts of somersaulting bodies. The cops, remarkably slow in reacting to these anarchic developments, finally emerge to take collar-jerking charge of the situation; by that time, the Stones are mostly in hiding, the music broken down to a shambles of whines and echoes, phantoms of the song that was. Pretty exhilarating – but you wouldn’t want to be on that stage.

Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham (left) with Brian Jones.

For my money, the director’s first (1965) cut, though the briefest of the three, is the most interesting. Whitehead’s marginally sociological agenda (“It was just a socio-realistic cinema-vérité film,” he says) manifests in arty kitchen-sink touches: the opening montage looks like early Ken Loach, with drab orchestration and montage of bleak provincial scenes. Without working too hard to deglamorize the Stones, Whitehead grounds them in the grain of the setting, the people, this corner of the earth. Charlie Watts’s interview, merely a clip in the other cuts, is here held for a single, very long shot, long enough for both Watts’s humor and his musical inferiority complex to be grudgingly revealed (and for the film’s odd title, purloined from an eighteenth-century Scottish ballad, to be justified). The music cues are a little better deployed, with fewer intrusions from Oldham’s Aranbee Pop Symphony Orchestra melting Jagger-Richards songs into shrieking mush. And though the remastering on Whitehead’s 2012 cut is fine, it offers no moment so brisk and bracing as the Stones disembarking at the Dublin airport to the accompaniment of “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction” in a dirty, unremastered transistor-radio mix. Hearing and watching, you suddenly snap to the obvious facts – at that instant, this was a brand new song! And the Stones were a fairly new band! There was such a time!

Thus does history sometimes come alive, through the evocative power of scratchy audio. If it’s hard not to read history backward, it’s even harder, sometimes, not to hear it that way.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

1 comment:

  1. "investing innocence with auguries of corruption"--great line in a great review. Kudos, Devin--

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