Exile On Main Street is one of the greatest records ever released. When it came out in 1972, Rolling Stones were the biggest band in the world, hands down. To release a massive, ambitious double album was a gamble for them. Stones In Exile is a documentary about the making of the album, but it’s also about a band finding themselves painted into a corner and making the best of it.
Most of the movie takes place at Nellcote, Keith Richards’ home just outside of Nice. The band was forced to move to the south of France following tax charges levied against them because manager Allan Klein had not been paying their taxes for years. They fired Klein, started their own record label, and took the whole operation down to paradise.
We see almost everything through the lens of Dominique Tarle, with archival footage from Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues. Tarle came to photograph for a day and ended up staying for six months. He started taking pictures of the band in 1964, and through his work captured some amazing moments. Given full access, we really get a behind-the-scenes tour of what working at Nellcote was like.
I never paid much attention to the stories behind Exile. I just accepted it for the great album it is, and never thought any more of it. Turns out there are some fascinating things about the record that a casual fan may have never heard. Stones In Exile doesn’t shy away from the truth in any way, including Richards’ heroin addiction; surprising since the band acted as executive producers.
Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman weren’t thrilled about having to travel to Richards home to rehearse and record. Jagger was living in Paris with his new wife, and Keith spent most of the time wacked out of his gourd. When they were together they would work at random hours, whenever everyone was around and could play. A lot of the songs were put together piece by piece, with everyone playing in separate rooms and often at different times.
This was the only time they recorded “Keith’s way,” as Watts put it. Wyman didn’t show up for a lot of the sessions, so Mick Taylor would play bass. Saxophonist Bobby Keys hung out the whole time, and his memories of the time all sound like a kid on spring break-everything was the greatest ever! His story of teaching Charlie Watts how to play drums on “Ventilator Blues” is the funniest moment in the film.
For all the time they spent in the south of France, it wasn’t until they brought everything to LA that the album actually started to come together. Jagger didn’t lay down vocals on the tracks done at Nelcotte, and what he did sing on they re-recorded anyway. Getting back on a schedule the way Mick likes to work, the band was able to focus and flesh out the songs.
Director Stephen Kijak does a good job of mixing concert footage in with the interviews and home movies. It’s interesting to hear the Stones talk about the album 40 years later. I don’t think any of them really look at that time in the band as the best, but the work that came out of it has stood the test of time.
Personally, I look at Exile On Main Street as a statement album. For the first time they were out of the huge shadow that The Beatles cast, and they were the top dogs. They took chances they may not have before, even as recently as Sticky Fingers. It mixes genres like no other rock record up until that point, and it was years before other bands caught up.
This documentary screened as part of CIMMFest‘s “CIMMpathy For The Stones” program at Music Box Theatre.