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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Stones in Exile

The making of a classic album

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When Exile on Main Street was released in 1972, some critics and fans were puzzled. Much of the double LP by the Rolling Stones, unrivaled as the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band once the Beatles had dissolved, struck them as a bloody mess, but a closer listen uncovered a wonderfully unkempt garden of creativity. Legends have grown up around the recording of Exile, spurred as much by the romance of rock when the stars were really as bright as the music itself. Nowadays Exile on Main Street is acclaimed as a classic, one of the great albums of the rock era.

The documentary Stones in Exile is a photo album of motion pictures from the era and the album, interspersed with recollections from the Stones and their entourage plus celebrity commentary. Producer Don Was thinks the album “altered the vocabulary of record making” and Martin Scorsese says the music echoed the “sense of being exiled—you can’t go home.”

Right they are, but the home-movie snippets from the session, ragged and disordered as the music they capture, are the real reason for watching. Director Stephen Kijak kept a tight focus on his loosely gathered material; Stones in Exile is a snappy, informative 60-minute film with no fluff (except perhaps for a couple of the contemporary celebrities).

The album’s title referred to the Stones’ money troubles; breaking with their manager and dismayed over falling into a 93% tax bracket in the United Kingdom, the band slipped into a comfortable sojourn in the south of France. Exile on MainStreet was recorded in the basement of Keith Richards’ Mediterranean villa, a dark warren of rooms where the power often failed and the humidity put the guitars out of tune. The sessions ran for months at any hour of the day or night in a process of gradual accretion and happy accident. For Richards, the lazy, druggy evolution of the tracks felt ideal. He was at home, literally and metaphorically. But one suspects that Mick Jagger began drumming his fingers after a while, impatient to find the final chapter. As Richards wittily put it, “Mick is the rock, I’m the roll.”

After a while, Richards must have been the only participant having a good time. Charlie Watts found the session increasingly “stressful.” According to Richards’ lover Anita Pallenberg, “the whole thing disintegrated when we got heavily into drugs” (i.e. heroin). Bill Wyman complained that someone snuck into the villa, stole the guitars, “and no one noticed—that’s how loose and stupid it was.”

But the decadence in the decaying mansion by the sea resulted in great music, enabled not so much by drugs as the Stones’ deep absorption into the roots of rock ’n’ roll in blues and country. The careless atmosphere encouraged sparks to fly, and many of them caught fire. Stones in Exile reflects the heat of those moments.

8:30 p.m. June 21, Times Cinema. Free admission.