In Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese's new IMAX film featuring the Rolling Stones in concert, the "boys" are still vital and extremely energetic Rock & Rollers — even if they are pushing past 60.
But as exciting as they still sound (and astonishingly trim and fit as Mick Jagger still looks), there is an undeniable truth. The decades are piling up between today's Stones and the era that marked the creation of their most inventive and enduring — and just plain best — music.
That's why it's a good time to shine a light on another Rolling Stones concert film, an obscure and largely forgotten one that has strong Cincinnati connections: Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones. Its co-producer and director of visual production is Steve Gebhardt, who is now 71 and lives on Prospect Hill. (The film's director of record is one Rollin Binzer.)
It was commissioned by the Stones as a document of their 1972 Exile on Main St. tour and was released to theaters in 1974. It is not officially available in any format, although bootlegs can be found on the Internet.
Gebhardt wishes it could get a new life in theaters or on DVD.
"They were hot," he says of the Stones on that tour.
"I haven't heard them do anything like Exile since. I thought it was awesome to be watching them then."
The Stones of the Ladies and Gentleman period consisted of Mick Jagger with Keith Richards and Mick Taylor on guitars, bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts. They were augmented by horn players Bobby Keyes and Jim Price and pianist Nicky Hopkins.
Most critics consider Exile the last in a streak of classic, career-defining albums by the Stones that started with Beggar's Banquet and continued through Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers. It's the album where the group sounded most organic — like a band rolling and tumbling through the unvarnished, scuffed-up, steaming, updated Roots music they had always wanted to make.
The no-nonsense film, with its many close-ups of the band performing, features five songs from Exile — an elegiac version of "Tumbling Dice" plus "Sweet Virginia," "All Down the Line," "Happy," and "Rip This Joint." Everything else, save a Chuck Berry cover, is from the three preceding albums. All kick hard. Even "Midnight Rambler," one of the Stones' most mannered and melodramatic songs, turns into an urgently hypnotic and transcendent Blues romp.
In 1972, when the Stones were planning their tour, they hired documentary filmmaker/still photographer Robert Frank to record the behind-the-scenes antics. (That resulted in another film, the legendary Cocksucker Blues, that has never been officially released.)
"They wanted something of them on stage performing, and they knew Robert's thing was backstage," Gebhardt says. "He wasn't equipped to shoot a multi-camera, multi-audio-track film."
But Frank's sound supervisor, Danny Seymour, remembered getting to know Gebhardt and his partner Bob Fries in 1970, when they all were working in the same New York loft. Gebhardt and Fries, also a Cincinnatian, were working for John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Joko film operation making Ono's Fly, about a fly buzzing around a woman in bed. Seymour remembered and recommended them.
So Gebhardt got the call from Marshall Chess, who worked for the Stones. In July 1972, he and three other camera operators — including Fries — filmed four shows in Houston and Fort Worth, Tex. A mobile unit from the Record Plant recorded the sound separately, although Fries was in charge of sound mixing.
Fries remembers putting four tracks in then-experimental quadraphonic surround-sound and playing it for Richards and a bunch of the Stones' friends on a sound stage at London's Twickenham Film Studios.
"They wanted to see how it was received," says Fries, who also got a producer credit on the film. "It went very, very well."
That helped the Stones decide to release Ladies and Gentlemen as a filmed concert.
The film took a long time to reach theaters. But when it was released in 1974, it was with all the hoopla of a live concert, booked into big theaters like New York's Zeigfield. Because it used quadraphonic surround-sound system, it needed special audio equipment and its own traveling crews. After that version played out, it was distributed as a mono print.
Gebhardt most recently made Twenty to Life: The Life and Times of John Sinclair, about the Detroit/Ann Arbor radical whose imprisonment on marijuana charges became an early-1970s cause celebre. Much earlier, while working for Lennon and Ono, Gebhardt had directed Ten for Two, about the 1971 Ann Arbor concert featuring John Lennon that was meant to raise awareness of then-imprisoned Sinclair. Gebhardt also currently is trying to arrange financing for a film about controversial Italian publisher Marcello Baraghini.
But he looks forward to seeing the Stones in Shine a Light.
"They're old men — they're my age," he says, laughing. "I'm amazed to see how Mick looks — he's taking care of himself. And Keith goes on." ©