Godard's "Sympathy For the Devil" Comes to DVD

Judging by the mail from some musicangle.com visitors, music and politics don’t mix well. Jean-Luc Godard’s film “One Plus One” issued here as “Sympathy For the Devil”— a version of which he apparently disapproved—serves to back up that contention, but it won’t stop me from posting an occasional political note, nor should it keep even the most right-wing among you from watching this fascinating ‘60’s artifact.

Cartooned late ‘60’s radical left wing politics juxtaposed with the Stones creating “Sympathy For the Devil” in the studio makes for a dreary film. Apparently, Godard’s intent was to de-construct “bourgeois” film-making and originally there supposedly was a coherent narrative, but it was jettisoned, leaving two disconnected threads: the making of the song, and a series of intercut “sketches” including one set in a junkyard in which stereotypical ‘60’s armed radical black activists decree their political aspirations while committing violent acts upon white women. Shocking!

You’ll have to ignore these interspersed bits of nonsense as well as an unrelated pornographic/political narrative by Sean Lynch that is actually amusing, in order to watch Mick and the boys create “Sympathy for the Devil,” one of the most memorable and lasting tunes from that tumultuous era, which is the opener to Beggar’s Banquet (issued Dec. of 1968) one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.

In those scenes at Olympic Studios with Glyn Johns at the board (not really visible), the group works the song up from Mick’s initial acoustic version, which exposes the beat as a samba, of all things—something that the final arrangement obscures if you don’t pay careful attention.

By this point the group was sufficiently successful to block book an in-demand studio and play. We see Mick teaching Brian the rhythm guitar part, and we note that Brian is pretty much out of it at this point. We note that Bill Wyman is aloof and apart from the group, while Keith looks like a totally different human being from what he is now. Mick looks so young, which of course he was, as he directs the proceedings, but he’s clearly the same person he is now. It was his song, apparently inspired by Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," which is narrated by none other than Lucifer himself.

Mick’s initial tentative strummed guitar version is ordinary musically while somewhat ridiculous lyrically when presented as such. As the film cuts back and forth between political nonsense and the band literally breathing life into the tune, we see Jagger coming to life—going from a kid songwriter to re-inventing his persona. The song, with so much power and energy packed into it by the time the final version is recorded, becomes a life changing experience for him, as it becomes one for the listener.

Near the end of the film we see Mick, legs quivering, on one side of an isolation wall singing the lead with ferocious intensity while the rest of the band along with producer Jimmy Miller, Keith’s squeeze Anita Pallenberg and I think Marianne Faithful, are standing around a microphone adding the song’s signature “woo-woo’s” casually, almost as if they are goofing on it and Mick.

The high definition wide screen transfer is superb and the sound is warm and intimate. You can almost see the Nagra R2R synched to picture just off screen, documenting the event. Fans of the Stones and the song should be thankful this important moment in rock and roll history has been so effectively captured and preserved. The film may be a failure, but the studio footage is a triumph.