It is the most infamous rock documentary of all time that the fewest people have actually seen in its entirety -- and even then mostly through third-generation VHS dubs or grainy DVDs. And its legend has only grown over the ensuing decades, as has its subjects, the Rolling Stones.
The film is Cocksucker Blues, director/photographer Robert Frank's unblinking and unfettered view of the Stones' 1972 tour to support their Exile on Main Street record. With its segments of debauchery, nudity, and drug use, the Stones thought twice when they viewed the final product and successfully sued Frank to stop distribution.
Years of complex legal wranglings allow only a handful of screenings each year, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will host two of them - in a refurbished digital format with full theater sound.
This is in part to the Museum's close relationship with the now 88-year-old Frank as the repository and distributor of his film and video. They are the first authorized Houston screenings since 1986. The title comes from a song that the band submitted (but was never released) to Decca Records as a "fuck you" when their contract ended.
"We aren't privy to the current agreement between the artist and the Stones, but we do know that it has been adjusted," says Marian Luntz, MFAH's film curator. "At present a maximum of four venues can be approved each year by Robert Frank, using his copy of the film. The authorized version in a theater is rare, and recent screenings have generated turn-away crowds."
And indeed, some of the scenes -- even 40 years on -- still have the ability to shock. We see Mick Jagger snorting cocaine and playing with his cock (albeit under pants), dazed groupies and hangers-on often completely nude and shooting heroin, and Keith Richards passed out and incoherent backstage.
And -- in the film's most unsettling scene -- a near sexual assault on two half-naked women on the group's private plane by roadies while bandmembers cheer and chant on the proceedings.
"The Stones hired Mr. Frank based on their admiration for his photography and prior films, and gave him no restrictions. It's a fascinating-behind-the scenes chronicle of the Stones and their entourage at that moment," Luntz continues. "People expecting a concert film will be disappointed."
Still, the concert footage that is in the film is amazing, with the Stones ripping through "Street Fighting Man," "Happy," "Midnight Rambler," "Brown Sugar," and with Stevie Wonder on a joyous "Uptight."
The film is also riddled with celebrity cameos as stars float in and out of the Stones' orbit (Tina Turner, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Dick Cavett), and alternately funny and sad scenes and interviews with assorted zoned-out fans, drug dealers, and weirdos.
But in the end, Cocksucker Blues is not about music or debauchery, it's about... ennui. And boredom.
The takeaway from the film is just how empty the life of rock and rollers -- even hugely successful ones -- can be during the 22 hours a day they are not onstage performing. Frank shows the endless series of mind-numbingly alike hotels and lobbies, dressing rooms, press interviews, and islolation.
Even footage of Jagger and his new wife Bianca shows the couple as stilted and blank-faced, as if they are waiting something to happen. One of the film's funniest moments is a audio recording of Keith Richards attempting to order a fruit basket -- but specific fruit -- from the hotel restaurant.
And when the Stones do get a chance to break away in the South and drive around looking for real, black American music and culture they find... a lot of roadway and a run-down pool hall, most of whose African-American patrons have no idea who these funny talking, long-haired white boys are.
Judged by today's Behind the Music rock-doc standards (and the Stones' own recent 50th-anniversary celebration film, Crossfire Hurricane), Cocksucker Blues can seem poorly filmed, erratic, slow, and thrown-together. But taken in context, it is -- like a lot of Frank's photos and videos -- raw, honest, and unforgettable.
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Cocksucker Blues screens at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at MFAH's Brown Auditorium, 1001 Bissonnet. Tickets are $20, with a $5 discount for MFAH members, students, and seniors available now at mfah.org/films.