Sympathy for the Gods: Three Docs About the Stones and the Beatles

There’s the Stones and the Beatles. Yes, there are a lot of amazing bands and musicians. Bowie. Dylan. Pink Floyd. Led Zeppelin. But, in the end, when it comes to classic rock, there are always the same two left standing at the top of that list. Always.

This post is about three documentaries that offer some insight into those legendary rock idols. Docs that showed some glimmer of how they did the amazing things that they did. Docs that sometimes showed moments of tension, anger, doubt, frustration, jealousy, and all the other tragedies of being human.

The first documentary is so mired in the politics and viewpoint of its filmmaker that it’s hard to strip the moments of genius away from the moments of pure incomprehensibility. Another of my selections would not be considered by most people to be a documentary at all. The third is almost impossible to see now because the Beatles, long ago, withdrew it from the public eye. Something about it making them look bad. But, each movie, in their own way, is brilliant and worth the effort to seek out. They offer rare windows into the lives and minds of those other-worldly beings, the gods of rock n’ roll.

GIVE ME SHELTER by Albert Maysles is a great documentary. It captures some heartbreaking moments of intimacy and tragedy. It shows the beginnings of a dark turning point from a hippie culture proclaiming peace and love to a culture of, more obvious, self-interest. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it.

But, it is not the documentary I wanted to write about here. I wanted to write about a less well-known, far stranger, but in some ways, more insightful, documentary than GIVE ME SHELTER. It was a film made in 1968 by Jean-Luc Godard.

In America, this film was called SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL. However, this film went by the title ONE PLUS ONE throughout much of the rest of the world. A title which gives some insight into its structure.

As the name would indicate, this flick is about the Stones. Very specifically, it’s about the Stones writing their masterpiece “Sympathy for the Devil.” The story of the creation of one, single, song.

Godard had total access to the Stones as they shut themselves into the studio and built the song up from next to nothing. This was certainly not a case of a songwriter already hearing a complete tune in their head and just adding details. It starts with only the slimmest of kernels and builds up, idea after idea, layer after layer. And it’s absolutely mind-blowing to watch.

It’s one of those films where I constantly found myself asking “how did they know to do that?” Or “how in the hell did they come up with that?” But it’s there, right in front of you. Step by step. The weird, inexplicable, genius of Richards, Jagger, Jones, Wyman and Watts as they just seem to magically know what to do and how to do it.

The recording of the classic “woo who ew” chant is a great moment. Being a studio recording, ALL you hear is that chant by a large group of people the Stones invited in and sat in a circle around the microphone. No background. No guitar. Just “woo who ew.”

It’s hard not to laugh. But it’s even harder no to be in awe. Of all the directions they could have taken the song, how did they ever think that was the way to go? But they did. And it, obviously, worked.

There is one absolutely huge drawback to this movie. The Black Panthers are given equal time to the Stones. Hence, the ONE PLUS ONE title. For every intense, gripping moment watching the Stones be the Stones, you are punished with horrible scenes of people reading the Black Panther Manifesto, and other such nonsense, that just stops the movie dead.

I have a ton of admiration and respect for Godard. The man challenged the very nature of film, for Christ’s sake! But, in this case, one plus one did not equal three. At least not to us more conventional, non-Marxist, non-intellectual types.

Maybe, there are other people that understand the Stones/Panthers connection better and see something I’m just not getting. Highly possible. But for me, the Panthers scenes are just the price you pay for the Stones footage. Something to be endured and ignored like an annoying commercial during your show.

But it doesn’t matter. Even the Panthers blathering on can’t take away from those moments were you actually witness creative genius happening right before your eyes. Inexplicable. Mesmerizing. Insight into why the Stones weren’t just another band.

Speaking of genius, what about those four guys from Liverpool? The Beatles still fascinate me. How did they do that? What made them, them? Why are they so different from the rest? What was it like to actually be a Beatle? This fascination might explain why out of my all-time favorite rock docs, the Beatles get two of them. That, and they are both amazing films.

Let’s start with the one that, technically, isn’t a documentary. It’s a scripted, fiction film. But, the thing is, it truly captures what it was like to be a Beatle during the height of Beatlemania. Far more so than any of the other countless documentaries made about the period. I am, of course, talking about A HARD DAYS NIGHT.

The film was directed by Richard Lester and written by Alun Owen. It was released in 1964 after the Beatles had already conquered the UK and were now doing the very same to the U.S..

Lester created a visual style that would go on to influence music videos and filmmakers for decades to come. It showed the energy and anarchy of a time when working class rockers would challenge the elite. No violence was required. Just a catchy beat and some clever lyrics.

All of which might lead you to ask “So, how the hell is that a documentary?” It was scripted, after all. And it was stylized and tightly controlled visually. The thing is, the screenplay was made up largely of words and incidents which Alun Owen had witnessed the Beatles actually go through. Not quite “dramatic recreations” but damn close.

For instance, the opening scene were the band is chased by adoring fans and, literally, running away from them. That happened. Many times. It was not possible, or safe, for any of the Beatles to be outside. So much so that they are on record as saying that their lives were “a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room.”

People forget the irrational frenzy that was Beatlemania. If you see footage of concerts during those early days, you see fans fainting, crowds jumping up and down hysterically and hear nothing but non-stop screaming.

If you’ve ever tried to listen to THE BEATLES AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL or any other unmolested, live recordings of their concerts, you probably came away with a headache. There were some very good reasons the Beatles stopped doing live concerts. For one, they didn’t see the point if everybody was so busy being hysterical they didn’t bother to actually listen to the music.

A HARD DAYS NIGHT captures the intensity of those early days. The demands of constant touring. The rabidness of the fans. The Beatles couldn’t go outside. They couldn’t have normal concerts. They couldn’t have anything, remotely, approaching normal lives.

When it came down to it, they only had each other. Four friends from Liverpool trapped in their hotel rooms and shuttled as quickly as possible between endless shows and press appearances.

They were granted just a few minutes of freedom. Moments which they embraced with humor and appreciation. Then it was back to the routine. The high-pressure grind of being the Beatles. They were the most famous band of all time and that very fame made them prisoners.

In short, HARD DAYS NIGHT wasn’t fiction.

Cut to just four years later. The Beatles had gone from cute moppets with catchy tunes to a cultural force with massive influence around the world. Album after album pushed the boundaries. They rewrote the rule book on what was and wasn’t rock n roll. Every release was a historical event. And it was all about to come to an end.

In 1970 the Beatles hired Micheal Lindsey-Hogg to do a 16mm television documentary to help promote their upcoming album. The documentary, LET IT BE, would become something far more.

The film captures two, remarkable, things. The first is the famous rooftop concert. The Beatles climbed to the roof of their studio and did an impromptu, illegal, concert. Crowds gathered in the streets below. Traffic stopped. The police arrived to try to control the chaos.

It was the Beatles playing live after years of locking themselves up in the studio. It was the Beatles playing together like they had before all the fame, all the chaos, all the insanity and all the pressure. A brief moment when they could almost pretend it was like the old days when they played together simply because it was fun.

Only about half the rooftop concert footage made the final cut of the film. But still. That twenty minutes, or so, is incredible. Worth watching the doc for, right there. But it takes on even more meaning put in the context of the other footage.

LET IT BE captures the final days. It captures the death of the Beatles. Lindsey-Hogg shot a ton of footage which would never see the light of day. There are long sequences of the band ranting about Yoko’s constant presence and influence. There are scenes of George Harrison announcing that he is quitting the band. There are scenes of Lennon talking about replacing Harrison with Eric Clapton. This footage was left on the cutting room floor from the very beginning.

Remember, the Beatles control the film and this was supposed to be a little promotional film, nothing more. But, even with all that cutting. That tension comes through. The Beatles imploding. Constantly at each other. Annoyed by each other. Bored by each other. All wishing they could just be rid of the whole damn thing. And it’s just fascinating.

There are a couple of scenes Lindsey-Hogg was able to sneak into the released version which fully capture some of those moments. Most notable is a scene featuring McCartney as he criticizes Harrison’s guitar work. Harrison tersely replies: “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it.” 

It’s a painful moment which captures Harrison’s battle against being the junior member of the band. As the youngest among them, it was something he faced during his entire time with the group.

There is also another moment shown where Paul McCartney is talking and John Lennon looks so bored that he’s about to fall asleep. In fact, the movie is filled with moments like that. Small expressions. Quick, little reactions. Looks in the eye. As every single member of the Beatles would later confess, these were the most miserable, darkest days, of the band. Days John Lennon simply called “hell.”

It’s a great movie. Good luck seeing it though. The Beatles were well aware of the image of them that the film captured. As a result, LET IT BE hasn’t been, officially, available since 1982.

There was talk of finally, re-releasing it in 2003 but the decision was reversed after the band realized “it raised a lot of old issues.” It was also considered bad for the group’s image, brand and potentially, sales.

There is talk, yet again, that the original film will be re-released. Supposedly, in late 2020. Some of the outtakes are also supposed to be used in a new project by director Peter Jackson which will be released about the same time. But, we’ll see.

It’s a shame the Beatles were so embarrassed of their behavior in the film. How it reminded them of dark times that they would rather forget. Because, above all, the documentary shows one thing. They might have been musical geniuses. But even the Beatles were human.

So, this is what it comes down to. If you manage to see SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL it will give you a look into the world of the gods. A place were magic happens and creative genius seems to be a given.

A HARD DAYS NIGHT will show you the frenzy and devotion of those which fall under the spell of their idols. It will also give you a look at the terrible price those idols must pay for such adoration.

And LET IT BE can almost be described as pure Greek tragedy. Our gods and heroes are at war with one another. Petty battles and insignificant slights take on epic proportions. Mortals are mere observers, if they are even acknowledged at all. And, in the end, we are reminded that even the gods are very fragile creatures.

Whatever your viewpoint, whether you see them as special or just as entertaining flicks, these three movies are well worth your time. And maybe, just maybe, the next time you hear a Beatles or Stones song come over the radio, you’ll appreciate them that much more. And, dare I say it, even have a little sympathy for them.