Blu-Ray Review: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL - Insistent, Self-Indulgent Chaos

At the height of his most revolutionary bent during the 60s, powerhouse French director Jean Luc Godard was invited to Britain to make a film calling for the legalization of abortion, but fate determined that his unmade film was made redundant by a change in British laws. He agreed to stay in Britain if he was given the opportunity to make a film about either The Beatles (who declined) or The Rolling Stones, and in 1968, he directed a politically charged commentary film that he called One Plus One- later renamed Sympathy For The Devil after a rock and roll song of the same name. The film combines documentary footage and staged sequences, alternating between showing the Stones' recording process to Godard's own charged reflections on contemporary politics and aesthetics, and it is now available to buy on blu-ray. Neither movie nor documentary, Sympathy For The Devil is an experiment in visual juxtaposition, offering a cultural flashpoint- the recording of the Stones' album of the same name- side-by-side with images of the socio-political and cultural environment that led to and informed its creation. It could in fact be viewed as two separate films entirely: the first follows The Stones as they record 'Sympathy For The Devil' and compose material for the forthcoming 'Beggar's Banquet' album, and the second is made up of a series of abstract constructed vignettes, in which the director tackles various politically significant topics. Godard positions these often strange scenes as a counterpoint to the direct presentation of the Stones' creative processes, and clearly attempts to use them to present an oblique commentary on the political meaning behind popular music. It is ostensibly an arthouse, free-form rockumentary, steering mostly clear of sycophancy, but at the same time attempting to allow the audience to establish their own opinions on the Stones' genius, through uninterrupted shots of the band recording and rerecording parts of the album. In reality though, Godard insists on their genius- while he seemingly attempts to show the band in their purest artistic form, uninterrupted and unstaged (unlike other parts of the the film) One odd problem is that it is almost impossible to find a "review" of this film that doesn't just mimic the self-consciously pompous tone it adopts: because Godard is viewed as somehow untouchable as a film-maker it is a lot easier to suggest that the film is culturally important, and a triumphant and novel artefact of the 1960s than to see it as a self-indulgent failure. But I think Sympathy for the Devil is off-putting, and a bloated, unnecessary exercise in egotistical muscle-flexing on Godard's behalf, which says more about his own ideological stances than about his supposed subjects. It is the fictional sequences dealing with the various "hot topics" that Godard chooses to give focus to that are the worst part of the film, which is incredibly lax for a director of Godard's ability- there is just no correlation between the "art" on show here, and the concise film-making of Breathless. It seems that a motivated Godard dropped the ball, and his attempts to subvert the supposed conventions of bourgeois conventional cinema were simply let down in the execution. If you want to watch a Rolling Stones documentary that offers a compelling look at The Rolling Stones, and says a lot more about their infamous artistic identity, I would suggest you find last year's excellent Stones In Exile. Admittedly, Sympathy For The Devil offers some insight into the Stones' recording process- in fact, by presenting take after take of the entire composition of Sympathy for the Devil, we are allowed to witness the progression of the song from its first, slower conception to the vastly more percussive final version. I suppose it just depends on whether you can stomach the hugely self-indulgent and often painfully intrusive political hyperbole that accompanies it. And, if like me, you find that element is too much, and splits the film not into complimentary counterpoints but into the welcome (the shots of The Stones at work) and the unwelcome (almost everything else), then it is a lot easier to accept that the film is in fact a failure. It is a curio admittedly, but a failure in terms of film.


Overall the transfer is quite good: when you consider the age of the original source, the level of detail is as good as it could ever likely get. Colours are better, with the busy palette of reds, blues, greens, yellows, browns and blacks all shining surprisingly richly and are consistently well saturated. The tinkering is also kept to a minimum, meaning the film is still authentically aged and rich in filmic texture and grain. The audio is as clean and clear as you'd like to hear, though there is some disparity between the studio shots and the external ones (of course). Nothing particularly stands out as problematic though.


Not a whiff of the obligatory thankfully- although there are a couple of trailers thrown in for good measure (I don't know anyone who actually watches them if not forced by reviewing obligation)- and overall it's a good package. The high-points are the few excellent documentaries that look into the mythology and controversy surrounding the film, which is a lot more entertaining than the film itself (the idea of seeing Godard punch the producer who sneakily cut in the full version of Sympathy for the Devil at the end of the film without his consent is just bliss). Original Director's Cut 'One Plus One' 'Voices' Award 1968 Jean-Luc Godard Documentary Stills Gallery Promotional Material OriginalTrailer Original Biographies Sympathy for the Devil is available to buy on blu-ray from Monday 21st March.
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