Cinesphere: Sympathy for the Gods

Shot in 1968, ONE PLUS ONE is a fantastic glimpse into the collective minds of the Rolling Stones. It is also a movie so mired in the politics and interests of its director, Jean-Luc Godard, that these moments of revelation are almost overwhelmed. Almost.

In spite of Godard’s efforts to to bury the insanely intimate look at the Stones creative process with the rantings of the Black Panthers, those moments still come through. And they are amazing.

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.

Unfortunately, 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 rock band.

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