With great anticipation I awaited tickets to a TIFF screening of the latest Rolling Stones cinematic venture, Ole Ole Ole: A Trip Across Latin America – The Rolling Stones. Since those early 60s’ high schooldays when I scribbled Rolling Stones and Miles Davis across my workbooks – draw the bands, pencil various font titles to their songs and actually imitate and sing ‘Time is On My Side’ down a back alley away from neighbor’s ears; I’ve been married to the band.
The Stones are never far from view, a listen, a conversation – damn, they’ve outlasted nearly everything on this planet beyond a sphinx or treeless tundra.
When I first heard the band was heading to Havana I thought this would be a breeze for a band with big history, much love and more diplomatic arm twisting prowess than most elected officials. It seems that wasn’t the case.
Negotiating a bag of oranges in Havana can be a mind altering encounter. “Is that in local Cuban currency or tourist currency and why is a dozen oranges 12 US dollars?”
Watching the Stones emissary work the Cuban government, the round tables, the hair-pulling meetings is something I relate too. A decade back I was enlisted to mount the first Havana Arts Festival – long before the curtain dropped and the U.S took an active interest in normalizing relations.
I came up with what I thought was a winning eco tour –away from the Varadero beach and sunbathing crowds. By design Havana Arts was to be a seven-day immersion in Cuban culture – music, painting, theatre, language, literature, photography etc. – in old Havana. Daily classes and tours. My partner Fernando had the contacts, inside track and assurance this was something tourism and government would embrace. They did, for two years. I’m flying back and forth, meeting, greeting and visiting potential sites for each artistic foray. Just when all looks grand the process goes south. Paranoia sets in. Tourism claims bankruptcy, other local festivals and organizations and entrepreneurs worry an outsider may doom their events, all goes quiet.
Understanding business culture in Cuba is not one for the soft-hearted dreamer. Cuba has long been visited with outside proposals, con men, the sincere, the clueless artsy types and most walk away emptyhanded scratching heads and wondering why the silence, sudden turn of events. The answer – who the hell knows? That’s the way it goes. My encounter came up with this – fear of failure. Everyone in a position of responsibility has to meet expectations and one false move could mean loss of priority housing, face and extras that make life half bearable.
There are plenty first rate music documentaries crying for attention and the Rolling Stones will surely capture plenty eyeballs and why not? One can argue the necessity of documenting a region of the world many bands have been traveling without much fanfare. I get it!
The Stones wrap this in nostalgia, conflicted politics and modern technology. As complicated as Cuba can be entering or navigating business - Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico have ghastly political histories bled by murderous authoritarian regimes. Repression top of the menu! In some ways these moments outshine the build towards the finale and arrival in Havana.
The world loves the Stones, the rebellion, the in your face poke in the eye and aloofness. Watching crowds of adoring fans mouth the words to “Paint it Black, Symphony for The Devil” is chilling. These are territories where rock and roll was largely banned and one could easily be dismembered for possessing forbidden subversive recordings. Cubans had the music. Miami just ninety miles away when radio frequency weren’t jammed locals just tape recorded from radio broadcasts, repackaged and sold on the black market.
Paul Dugdale’s tour documentary has an easy flow to it. Dugdale catches the band fully relaxed. There’s dense negotiating and tons of equipment/staging to be shipped across the Atlantic which on the surface doesn’t seem to worry the band. Two weeks of rehearsals and band’s in stage shape.
Kudos to Jagger! The guy has a limber – gifted body that remains pliable and engaging. Age is yet to catch him. Jagger is the focus. Charlie Watts lays down the biggest fatback in rock. The snare drum pops and kick drum punctuates a natural groove. Watts is the one member that could never be replaced. Like Ringo Starr there is something original in the playing, simple, yet near impossible to replicate.
What makes the film work is the behind the scenes visuals and none more hilarious than a disrobed Keith Richards. Appearing early morning from his Havana suite Richards reveals a body that could be classified “mummy chic”, arms the width and length of bread sticks and head carved from a Punch and Judy kids show. Loveable!
That’s the vibe – you really love these guys. The internal wars, the short battles and near scrapes may have scarred a bit but it’s nowhere to be seen here.
Best scene – Jagger and Richard’s acoustic take on “Honky Tonk Woman,” written in 1968 while on a Brazilian vacation. It’s a killer. It’s the breakdown of how the song was written, born from a one line and now sung with a classic mountain music/roots country growl. This is the essence and spirit of the Stones. No matter how far they pushed against their roots they always found comfort in returning.
Cinematography is stunning. Latin America is still an impoverished hemisphere with few citizens enjoying the wealth and prosperity of the minority who have strong-armed the populous for centuries through inheritance and military power. The streets in many back neighborhoods are broken, torn between dreams and raging poverty yet there is music and art that nourishes.
The tour between February 3 and March 25, 2016 took in $85,000,000!
CraveTV has acquired the rights to both Ole Ole Ole and companion concert film Rolling Stones - Havana Moon – Ole to be broadcast October 14 and Moon January 2017.