In the late 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard was making films at an astonishing rate. In 1967 alone, he made no less than three feature films, including his explosive Week End.
1968, the year of the May revolution in Paris, saw him spurred on by the political upheaval – as documented in the new biopic Redoubtable. In the immediate aftermath of the events in May, however, Godard moved to London to make his first film in Britain: Sympathy for the Devil, his infamous document of The Rolling Stones.
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Mixing together political tracts, fiction and music documentary, Godard made a one-of-a-kind avant-garde collage, a perfect time-capsule of the revolutionary end of the decade.
Godard had been due to work on a film discussing the legalisation of abortion, but, with a change in the law rendering the project redundant, the French director told the producers he’d still make a film in Britain, but only if he could work with The Beatles or the Stones. The Beatles declined but Mick Jagger and co happily agreed. The resulting film includes precious footage of recording sessions at Olympic Studios in Barnes, where the band were in the middle of recording their seventh album, Beggars Banquet.
Throughout the film, we see the evolution of the song ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, which the British release version of the film would be named after (it was known as One Plus One in Europe). The song develops as the political arguments of the film progress, from early jamming to the fully realised song in the final scenes.
In a sequence away from the studio, Godard takes us to a scrapyard where a number of Black Power activists are discussing politics. The scrapyard is at Lombard Wharf in Battersea, since built on by a private development with moorings for boats rather than derelict piles of cars and revolutionary graffiti.
The Black Power activists in the sequence are played by some of most prolific of black British screen actors of the period. Danny Daniels, Roy Stewart and Ilario Bisi-Pedro were all regulars of British film and television, starring in everything from Doctor Who and The Avengers to Danger Man and I, Claudius.
Godard’s film is full of early roles for other actors too. In particular, Joanna David, seen briefly in the film, would work prolifically in television as well as starring in Saxon Logan’s Sleepwalker (1984) and Bill Douglas’s Comrades (1986).
Mick Jagger during the studio sessions. These Barnes studios were once a theatre, then a cinema, then a TV studio, before Olympic Studios moved into the building in 1964. During filming, a fire started caused by a bulb exploding near some of the sound diffusion paper put up by the director. A recording session had to be conducted the following day with a hole in the building caused by the subsequent fire.
In the early stages of recording the song, lead guitarist Keith Richards is unusually seen playing bass as well as his usual Gibson Les Pauls. ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ was released as a single in December that year, making number 10 in the UK charts. Many other notable faces can be seen in the footage of the studio, including Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull and even James Fox who, at this point, was beginning his character research for Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (made in 1968 but held over for release until 1970).
Anne Wiazemsky is more typical casting for Godard. She’d made her screen debut in Robert Bresson’s classic Au hasard Balthazar (1966) and subsequently wrote to Godard to express her admiration for his films. They met and married in 1967, filming La Chinoise together in the flat they shared in Paris. She appears in many of his post-68 revolutionary films.
In Sympathy for the Devil, Wiazemsky plays a character called Eve Democracy. In her main sequence, aside from scrawling graffiti on various walls and cars in west London, she is interviewed in character by a film crew in a forest. Asked what her role was in the film by the magazine Vertigo, Godard said: ‘Because she said her name is Eve Democracy, it doesn’t mean she represents democracy. I don’t know, maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t… She’s a person because she’s a girl and she’s an idea, because her name is democracy…’
In the film’s final cut, the ending was changed by producer Iain Quarrier, seen earlier in the film as the Nazi pulp bookshop owner reading from Mein Kampf. Godard did not want the final version of the song in the film, as that suggested a sense of closure instead of flux for his film’s political arguments. Such was his anger at this change that Godard famously punched Quarrier at the film’s National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank) screening, later projecting his own version outside on the wall.
In the very final moments, Godard himself comes into shot running with the characters. He is the man wearing the beige mac and white hat. In the moment when Eve Democracy collapses, he is seen pouring red paint onto her body before it is hoisted up on the crane rig. The final shot of the film is Wiazemsky’s body being lifted by this crane into the sky.
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