Unseen since its making 28 years ago, “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” a staged-for-the-cameras concert film featuring the Stones and guests that include the Who, Eric Clapton, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, deserves its legend as the King Tut’s tomb of rock movies. Heady with late-’60s atmosphere and electrifying moments from musical luminaries at their creative peaks, pic easily scotches suspicions that it might be little more than a period curio, emerging as a powerfully vivid, if late-arriving, complement to musical documents such as “Monterey Pop” and “Gimme Shelter.”
Alas for rock-movie diehards, this psychedelic circus isn’t headed for cinematic arenas. While the thrill of watching it with a large audience and the quality of the restored film’s 35mm blowup are inarguable, its theatrical career apparently will be limited to nine showings Oct. 12 and 13 at New York’s Walter Reade Theater, where it will be presented as a special event of the 34th New York Film Festival. Originally intended as a TV special, pic will then be released Oct. 15 on vid formats and as a soundtrack CD.
Mounted by the Stones and their manager of the time, Allen Klein, pic reportedly languished after its 1968 making because the Stones considered their performance lacking and feared they had been upstaged by the Who. (Plans to refilm the Stones’ part of the show in Rome were never realized, due partly to the death of band member Brian Jones.) The cause of that almost three-decade delay is now staggeringly ironic, since “Circus” shows the Stones in top form, unbettered by their illustrious competition.
Whimsically conceived and hastily organized by Mick Jagger, pic was shot over two days in December 1968, on a London soundstage. “Let It Be” helmer Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who made early musicvideos for the Stones and Beatles, directed a 16mm multicamera setup.
With acrobats, fire-breathers and clowns interspersed between the musical acts, Jagger’s show remains true to its festive, “Sergeant Pepper”-influenced conceit throughout. After the Stones and their guests, all in outlandish costumes and mugging at the live audience, arrive in the circus-set arena “playing” “Entry of the Gladiators” on horns, emcee Mick introduces the evening and the music commences.
Jethro Tull, then brand-new, perform “Song for Jeffrey” with impressive aplomb. Though not entirely show-stealers, the Who make the most of their slot with a fiery rendition of Pete Townshend’s ambitious mini-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away,” a “Tommy” forerunner that’s powered by Townshend’s slashing guitar style, drummer Keith Moon’s antic flailing and the tight vocal harmonies supplied by all four members.
Taj Mahal, backed by a band that includes guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, contributes a rocking blues number, “Ain’t That a Whole Lot of Love.” Next up is Marianne Faithfull, obviously intended to provide a moment of feminine elegance, but the result is the evening’s low point. Faithfull looks uncomfortable performing in an evening dress with pre-recorded musical backing, and the wispy ballad she sings, “Something Better,” comes off almost as a parody of’ ’60s tunecraft.
After a bantering intro by Jagger and Lennon, who refers to himself as “Winston Legthigh,” the one-time-only band the Dirty Mac, featuring Lennon, Clapton, Keith Richards (on bass) and Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell, blazes through Lennon’s “Yer Blues” with passion and authority. This section also marks the first public performance of Lennon and Yoko Ono, who’s onstage writhing in a black bag during “Yer Blues,” then emerges to perform in her trademark ululating caterwaul, backed by the Dirty Mac and fiddler Ivry Gitlis, on “Whole Lotta Yoko.” Whatever Ono’s reputation at the time, this passage in retrospect is an edgy delight, the show’s most vivid reminder of ’60s iconoclasm and artistic daring.
The concert’s remainder begs to be called the best audiovisual record of the original Rolling Stones at their creative zenith. Led by the dynamic prancing and spirited singing of Jagger, whose hair is dyed for his role in “Performance, ” the band, joined by pianist Nicky Hopkins and percussionist Rocky Dijon, perform with power and precision. Yet what makes the show so remarkable is the stunning songcraft that marked the final year of the Stones’ competition with the Beatles: the rousing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” relaxes into the agile blues of “Parachute Woman” and “No Expectations,” which segues aptly into the brilliant fin-de-’60s anthems “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and, climactically, “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Concluding with a giddy sing-along version of “Salt of the Earth,” with the Stones and guest stars hamming it up amid the audience, “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” offers an infectious reminder that ’60s rock at its best was both serious and playful.