The intoxicating blend of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll never spoils, particularly if it’s of an early ’70s vintage. And it never hurts to use film and TV to sell it, particularly if the film makes its debut at Cannes.
“Exile on Main Street,” the Rolling Stones’ down-and-dirty double album that was reviled upon its 1972 release — then later hailed as a masterpiece — appears to grow ever more complex with age. Event-scaled activity is swirling around the album’s digitally remastered reissue May 18, which includes 10 freshly unearthed tracks from the period.
The Universal Music Group has spared no expense to create three lavish packages: from the original 18-track release to a “super deluxe” edition that includes vinyl, a 30-minute DVD and a 64-page collector’s book. In addition, UMG has enlisted its merchandising company, Bravado, to create an extensive line of “Exile”-inspired products — t-shirts, caps, leather jackets and the like, all outfitted with the Stones’ iconic tongue-wagging logo.
Also as part of the festivities:
- an entire week of NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” devoted to the “Exile” re-release
- Stones frontman Mick Jagger is scheduled to participate in a rare interview about his career and “Exile” on CNN’s “Larry King Live” May 18 and;
- a 60-minute documentary, “Stones in Exile,” will unspool at Cannes on May 19 — perhaps the first time a film commissioned as a promotional tool will be screened as part of the fest’s Directors Fortnight (with Mick Jagger and director Stephen Kijak expected to attend).
At the time “Exile” first came out, double LPs represented outsized ambition, hubris or an artist’s creative peak. For the Stones, “Exile” qualified as all-of-the-above, and its place in the rock firmament is secure, not only for it’s raunchy mix of party-hearty rock classics and Delta blues-inspired ballads, but also for the chaotic circumstances under which it was made.
As Kijak’s pic documents, “Exile” was largely conceived in the basement of Keith Richards’ rented mansion, Villa Nellcote, in the South of France, after the group was forced to flee England owing taxes that would have left them on the verge of bankruptcy. The record was made in fits and starts by a band suffering from the malaise of displacement. Less-than-ideal recording equipment, stifling summer temperatures, Richards’ heroin addiction and a retinue of 24-hour party people only complicated matters.
Recalls then-president of Rolling Stones Records, Marshall Chess, in “Stones in Exile”: “I was coming from (the approach that) you had to make three sides in three hours. These guys were taking two weeks to get one track down.” Or, as saxophone player Bobby Keys describes it, “It was about as unrehearsed as a hiccup.”
The group had chosen Nellcote more out of convenience than necessity. Instruments were placed in various basement nooks and crannies — a kitchen, a hallway — to achieve some semblance of separation and desired acoustics.
“The place was atrocious,” reveals recording engineer Andy Johns in Kijak’s film. “It was so humid, and the guitars would go in and out of tune all the time and the gear wasn’t working properly and the lights would go on and off and there were fires. It was just insane.”
The situation wasn’t helped by the fact that band members were spread out all over the countryside, and as far away as Paris, where Jagger attended to his newlywed wife Bianca, who cast a wary eye on his band mates and their motley crew of groupies and hangers on.
Personality differences also took their toll. “I never plan anything, which is probably the difference between Keith and myself,” says Richards in “Stones in Exile.” “Mick needs to know what we’re going to do tomorrow and I’m just happy to wake up and see who’s hanging around.”
The film’s footage is mostly culled from outtakes from Robert Frank’s infamous doc, “Cocksucker Blues,” which chronicled the Stones’ 1972 American tour (Frank also shot the “Exile” cover art using a Super 8 camera), and a treasure trove of images from the French photographer Dominique Tarle, who spent six months with Richards, his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg and the band during the making of the album at Nellcote.
“We worked really hard to get people to feel like they were in the basement,” says Kijak (pronounced “kayak
”), best known for the acclaimed music documentary, “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.” “Between Dominique’s photos and Robert’s footage, we just tried to let those two things steer us.”
Other key gets were a BBC interview with the late Jimmy Miller, who produced a string of Stones masterpieces that culminated with “Exile,” including “Beggar’s Banquet,” “Let It Bleed” and “Sticky Fingers”; and the actor Jake Weber (CBS’ “Medium”), who, as an 8 1/2-year guest at Richards’ house at the time, provided a unique, unvarnished perspective of things. “If you’re living a decadent life, there’s darkness there,” Weber recalls in the film. “And this was decadent. Nothing was hidden; everything was out in the open.”
While Kijak managed to piece together a compelling story that is brutally frank, he does admit some concessions were made as a director for hire, such as interviews with Sheryl Crow and Benicio Del Toro that bookend the film. “Celebrity talking heads can sometimes be a concession to higher powers,” Kijak says. “But everyone was handpicked to have some kind of connection with the Stones. And in a way, we wanted to use them as a kind of stand-in for fans.”
One of those fans, who also happens to be a celebrity, is Fallon, who wasn’t even born when “Exile” was released. The 35-year-old comedian/talkshow host, who does a spot-on imitation of Jagger, first got to know the Stones’ frontman when they both appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” The two recently reunited at a charity event where Fallon offered to help promote the new “Exile” release. Jagger suggested Fallon premiere the “Stones in Exile” doc on “Late Night,” and the concept turned into a weeklong celebration, with the likes of Green Day, Keith Urban and Phish performing versions of their favorite “Exile” tunes.
“Once we announced Phish,” says Fallon, “all the other bands came in immediately that day. Keith Urban was the first to call, and said, ‘I want to do ‘Tumblin’ Dice’; that’s my song.’ I love it when everyone gets juiced up and excited. (These artists) bring a new audience to the Rolling Stones.”
Of Kijak’s film, 40 minutes of which was shown on “Late Night’s” May 14 broadcast (the DVD will be released June 22 in the U.S.), Fallon says “(The Stones) are in a filthy basement. They’re in the south of France. You see how debauched it was. The story is rock ‘n’ roll.”