Rolling back the years with Charlie et al.

A documentary about the Rolling Stones before they were megastars rocks this year’s DocAviv.

Rolling stones 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Rolling stones 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
It is hard to imagine such a situation arising today, but almost half a century ago Peter Whitehead was given a couple of thousand pounds and asked to document two days on the Rolling Stones’s 1965 tour of Ireland. Then a twentysomething filmmaker, with only a couple of works under his belt – one a leftfield educational science outing, and the other a documentation of a Beat poet event at London’s Albert Hall – Whitehead grabbed the bait with both hands and the rest is a gem of a documentary titled Charlie Is My Darling.
The film will be screened at this year’s DocAviv Festival, which kicked off yesterday and runs until May 11, along with five other music-based works, including a fascinating glimpse of the world of the Beatles throughout the band’s existence, from the early 1960s until the break-up in 1971, through the eyes of one of the key behind-thescenes figures in the Fab Four mix, its secretary.
Charles Bradley: Soul of America offers an enlightening angle on the hard graft and grind that can be the lot of artists looking for their big break. The “soul” in the title refers both to the music genre in which Bradley peddles his creative wares, and the less-than-glamorous spiritual and physical road Bradley traveled for many years before coming to wider public attention. Other musical offerings in the DocAviv lineup include an in-your-face record of electronic music artist and producer James Murphy’s farewell concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and Searching for Sugar Man, in which two South Africans embark on a voyage of discovery, in an effort to find out what happened to their music hero, 1970s rock star Rodriguez.
Charlie Is My Darling not only portrays a couple of days in the life of a working band on the cusp of megastardom, it is also something of a fly-on-the-wall snapshot the likes of which, sadly, has almost become extinct in this media-suffused and social network-saturated day and age.
“That really could not happen these days,” notes Robin Klein, the producer of the documentary. “You simply could not have that kind of access to the musicians, and shoot the film in that way. You couldn’t even make this kind of film about a band that’s not famous, because today everyone is so media aware.”
Klein says that the Stones’ fresh-faced look is long gone. “We’re not just talking about these days. If you watch, say, Ya-Ya’s [the DVD of the 1969 Stones concert “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” that was released in 2009] or 25x5 [25x5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones], which covers various junctures of the band’s life between 1963 and 1969, you can just tell they are becoming more media aware and more guarded, and honing their story.”
“I like to think of it [Charlie] as that moment in Wizard of Oz before Dorothy opens up the door and walks into the technicolor world,” says director Mick Gochanour.
“In the Stones documentary we’re still in black and white.”
Klein was, understandably, enthralled with the project she took on, and with the result. “We had a lot of fun working on this. It is amazing that this is our job. What could be more fun than listening to that kind of music, and seeing that kind of energy on stage, and going on a treasure hunt, like we did, and finding the gold? It’s great.”
“We” refers to Klein and Gochanour, both of whom invested an enormous amount of time and effort in not only physically producing the final product, which is basically a collage of Whitehead’s footage, but also in a serious amount of sleuthing. “We went to London and other places to dig into archival material, and we came up with some amazing material,” explains Klein.
THE RESULT of their work is a highly intimate picture of what it was like for the Rolling Stones back in those far more innocent days. “As a cameraman, he [Whitehead] did an amazing job,” Klein continues. “He was given unprecedented access to the Stones, and shot the film in guerrilla-like circumstances. You can see there’s no additional light during the performances.”
Klein and Gochanour did lots of mixing and matching of the original material, before ending up with the new documentary. In fact, the film was never meant to be released for public consumption at all. The Beatles had just released A Hard Day’s Night, their debut piece of celluloid, and the Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham felt his band should get their own film out there too. Whitehead’s material was, in fact, meant to be an extended screen test for the members of the band, to get the feel of the lie of the land before putting out a full-blown product.
But logistics got in the way – immediately after the Irish tour, the Stones went over to LA to record the new single “Get Off My Cloud,” which was followed by more touring. Neither the original 35-minute first cut, nor a later 49-minute version, found its way to the outside world.
One of the scenes that conveys the sense of immediacy of Charlie most tangibly is the footage of some of the young members of the audience, unable to control their enthusiasm, storming the stage during a concert. The scene is shot from the wings, near the curtain, with eternally cool-as-ice bassist Bill Wyman mostly just smiling as the fans flood past him, as drummer Charlie Watts – whose given name features in the name of the documentary – continues to play regardless, even when a young girl comes up and chats away with him. Watts, always the coolest member of the band, never misses a beat.
The producer says that she and Gochanour put a lot into the new coverage of the incident. “We changed Peter’s original cut quite a bit, and you get to see a bit more of [keyboard player and original Stones member] Ian Stewart that you do in Peter’s cut,” she observes, adding that the documentary offers younger fans, who did not catch the group back then, some precious added value. “The film is about two days in the life of a working R&B cover band, not of the Rolling Stones as we know them today. It is pretty amazing.”
Gochanour says that neither he nor Klein really knew what they were letting themselves in for. “When we started this whole process, we were going to restore the original 35-minute version for the 50th anniversary [of the Stones] and try to find a little place for it. What shocked me was that we found so much footage that had never been seen, of them performing. Much of it was even unprocessed.”
The director says they had their work cut out for them. “There was no information about the songs they played at the concerts – just 20- or 30-second clips with no indication of what songs they were.”
Gochanour and Klein’s predicament was further compounded by the fact that the live footage was shot without sound, and the director had to painstakingly match sound recordings of the songs with the onstage action.
“We spent a lot of time honing the skill of matching movement to sound,” continues Gochanour. “The editor [of the new version] Nathan Punwar is an animator, and he was the perfect person to do this work. We had to match the tempo and the best performance.”
Luckily for them, the Stones were always a professional outfit. “The remarkable thing is the consistency of the Stones’ shows is mind blowing,” says Gochanour.
“I can take [Stones’ hit single] ‘Satisfaction,’ say three versions of it from 1965, and I could match each one of them. [Lead singer Mick] Jagger’s syntax, the way he takes a breath between words, is so consistent all the way down the line that we really only had to decide which had the most energy.”
Charlie Is My Darling is clearly a labor of love for Klein, Gochanour and the rest of the crew, and they have produced a priceless documentation of a unique band at a unique juncture in the evolution of Western pop culture.
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