" Oh no you don’t. I don’t want to be a politician. "
— Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln, Abe Lincoln in Illinois

MRQE Top Critic

The Great Train Robbery

(review...)

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The Rolling Stones: Under Review 1962-1966: An Independent Critical Analysis is not quite as dreary as its title insists it is. This film will be consigned by its title and black-and-white performance footage to be shown in college classrooms as cobwebbed “history.” This trip back in time to the hitmaking machine of the early 1960s in England gives us a glimpse of the band’s early years, showing the Stones’ earliest influences and how they gained their first toeholds in England’s and America’s music scenes, across the first dozen or so hits that launched them into becoming the superstars they are today.

People complain about the record industry today, but it’s more for pouring all of their resources into promoting a few mediocre people and barely supporting a larger fistful of good ones. Back in the Stones’ early days, they tried again and again to build hits almost the way they ran Detroit’s now-legendary assembly lines. They signed new or hot talent to record, and adapted or rewrote versions of existing hit songs. And it often worked. The Rolling Stones’ first original hit song, according to the filmmakers, was “derivative of a gospel tune popularized by the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi called ‘This Could Be The Last Time.”

Time Is on My Side

The DVD features early TV appearances and dubbed videos alternating with talking heads: critics, staff, or friends of the band (and a few of the heads fit more than one category). All the talk is by these people; there are no band interviews. It’s often hard to find the groove in the band’s energetic early performances because of the awkward show formats, dubbing and synching issues, and the director’s decision to cut between interviews and the music during the songs.

Yet in this early hit parade, we do get an inkling of how The Rolling Stones’ ascendance marked a turning point in rock history. In the brittle TV show hosts’ manners toward this band of English longhairs you perceive how uncomfortable the establishment was that this sexy new white group was going directly to black music. The Stones borrowed most from what sounded good at the time, which to them was the blues. I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that the Stones were truly among the forces that contributed to a revolution in racial and political thinking. By the late 1960s, many more inspired new bands (think Cream, the Small Faces, the Yardbirds, Eric Burdon and the Animals, the Who) were borrowing freely from the blues and running in step with the popular English lads.

Not Fade Away

When the Stones’ early minders, press, and pals dish on the band and their special place in history, they tell about how the atmosphere of “mass hysteria” was so thick at the Stones’ early U.S. appearances that the first four rows of seats in any given theater were drenched with the pee of teen girls who simply couldn’t control themselves. As if we’d never heard the rumors, they tell us how Brian Jones felt he brought the Stones together, and later introduced many of the unusual instruments into their arrangements (and don’t we tend to give Lennon and Harrison all the credit for this?). They also tell how Keith Richards woke up certain he’d stolen the riff on “Satisfaction” from someone but unable to identify who it was.

This film has a fair assortment of gossip, facts, some opinion, and some stage-setting, but this may only prove worthwhile for the band’s most loyal fans and collectors of Stones arcana. Those with the interest will find delightful scenes, like the nerdy music-loving English kid all chuffed to be playing music at home with this new band on the scene, yet even now as he tells the story a tad embarrassed to admit his mum was always peeping ‘round the corner for a giggle at Mick’s prancing dance. This is all recounted by one of the talking heads, so we must conjure it in our own minds, but it’s a lovely scene nonetheless. Amidst the awkward TV studio performances, we get a couple of precious glimpses of the band playing, not yet jaded by the routines of performing. Once in a while a tiny smile tossed over to another musician suggests they know they are on to something good – those little smirks show it’s better than anything else.

Despite the handful of anecdotes and rough performance clips, however, you never get a solid feeling of how the Rolling Stones did what they did from this film. Not only do the cuts between interview and song interrupt songs throughout, but many of the videos from TV appearances are dubbed or have poor sound or synchronization issues as well. The filmmakers clearly had access to a limited pool of video clips, many from “Ready, Steady Go,” England’s equivalent to “American Bandstand.” Did the TV networks all pre-emptively dub their performances, worrying that the Rolling Stones would be too rebellious on the air? Did the networks routinely do this with everyone, knowing full well their own ideas of free speech were not quite in sync with the current pop stars’ notion of free speech? We don’t get answers to these and broader questions here, but the fond look back at the beginnings of a band that turned out to be a force in rock and pop history is just amusing enough for a true fan’s time to be well spent.

DVD Extras

Extras include a handful of tangential extended interviews with the same folks who appear in the feature-length documentary. And those with minds for truly abstruse trivia can test their mettle on the absurd “Hardest Rolling Stones Digital Interactive Quiz in the World Ever.”