What is the nature of genius? It’s so easy to imagine a revolutionary work of art, a great song, movie, or novel, simply springing out of its creator’s head on command. Wrong. Auteur theory teaches us that a film is a director’s sole creative vision. We often look to creators of art as great individuals, single and solitary in their creative process. Wrong.
In 1968, The Rolling Stones were at the peak of their abilities as musicians, and as songwriters. From 1968 to 1972, they would rattle out some of their most iconic albums, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St. Put those four albums up against the best four albums of any other band. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many that compare.
Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 documentary, Sympathy for the Devil, puts us in the room with The Rolling Stones in this time of peak creative output, literally a fly on the wall, with the camera simply rolling as the band rehearses. It’s an incredibly enlightening film in the ways in which it allows us to uncover the genius of The Rolling Stones. Over the course of the film, we watch as a simple sequence of guitar chords gets endlessly tinkered with and altered, how the band tries speeding it up, and slowing it down, how they try different percussive rhythms, and different guitar solos, and plug in different lyrics to fit the song.
To see a band, any band, in the midst of their creative process, would almost certainly be an experience on its own. To see the creative juggernauts of The Rolling Stones composing one of their most iconic songs, the titular Sympathy for the Devil (the No. 32 greatest song of all time according to Rolling Stone magazine), is an unparalleled experience, and one that I find myself repeating every few months, whenever I feel like my creative juices are drying up. It’s a healthy reminder of all the hard work and collaboration that goes into artistry.
The film itself is something of a mediocre work, as Godard intersperses various elements of ’60s counterculture, readings on Marxism and other assorted topics, and provocative imagery, all of which has seemingly nothing to do with the recording of the song itself. Though some likely will get some value out of these scenes, I find myself fast-forwarding through these moments in order to get to the meat of the piece.
The true genius of Sympathy for the Devil lies in the moments when Godard sits back and lets The Rolling Stones do their thing.
Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste