Pebbles: The Rolling Stones in Charlie Is My Darling

It’s not as if the Stones are lacking pivotal film documents – there’s the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter and Godard’s One Plus One for starters, not to mention Robert Frank’s notorious, unreleased Cocksucker Blues  – and that’s without mentioning their own sanctioned career-overview documentary, Crossfire Hurricane.

But no filmmaker ever got closer than Peter Whitehead, who was there before the rocky masks had been tugged into place and the myths coalesced. Shot over three days in 1965, on stage, backstage and on the road during a short tour of Ireland, Charlie Is My Darling, the first Stones film, is a Stones film like no other.

Barely released in 1966, and then held trapped, unseen, in legal tangles for decades, Whitehead’s vivid, hand-held verité documentary was viewable only via various washed-out bootlegs until 2012, when it was finally allowed out into the world via a meticulous re-release which struck gold by returning to the archives – not simply restoring the print, but uncovering additional footage, including extended versions of the fantastically raw performances: Jagger, Richards, Jones, Watts and Wyman when they were a young blues band in shirts and neat sports jackets, playing small venues, close enough for the hysterical audience to storm the stage.

Filming shortly after the release of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, Whitehead captures the group in the process of going stratospheric, loving what is happening to them, yet also apprehensive. Here are the Stones when they weren’t much more than kids, impersonating Elvis, jamming Beatles songs, and, amazingly, caught in the act of composing their own, as Mick talks Keith through his idea for “Sittin’ On A Fence.” (“It’s about a guy sitting on a fence…”)

Getting so close you get to watch Keith and Bill lathering concealer over their spotty faces, what emerges is hardly a portrait of young gods. They seemed to arrive fully formed as the perfect band, but as individuals, Whitehead finds these Stones (with the possible exception of Keith, who already seems untouchable) still unformed, unvarnished and, when he pins them down for interviews, uncomfortable. As the young men get bored, show off, lark around, try on intellectual pretension and mumble, the results are astonishingly intimate, often charming, sometimes toe-curling.

The most fascinating interview is an encounter with the famously reticent Charlie Watts. Looking like a mop-topped Easter Island mod statue, and giving the clear impression he’d much rather undergo serious dental surgery than answer Whitehead’s persistent questions, he toys inexplicably with a paintbrush as he dismisses the notion he could ever play with Shostakovich, and pines after his lost career as a graphic designer.

Brian Jones, seeking to come off as the band’s effete aesthete intellectual, suffers the worst as he spouts protracted gibberish about his plans to direct a film that will offer “a new interpretation of love.” There’s an excruciating moment when, just after Jones has used the word, Whitehead asks him what “surrealism” means, and the guitarist is left staring dumbly at the camera. Still, Jones is also responsible for the most eerily poignant moment, when he sighs, “Let’s face it: the future as a Rolling Stone is very uncertain.” But the inarticulacy of the band members in conversation is starkly contrasted with the dark, expressive glory of their music.

Working with a loose, vibrant, montage approach, Whitehead’s footage is simply priceless: the band supping tea and discussing Ken Dodd on a train; Keith busking a great acoustic “Salty Dog”; an unaccountably hilarious sequence as Charlie tries to take a cigarette from Bill Wyman, only for the bassist to continually thwart him; a bizarre, unexplained moment as Mick poses for the wedding pictures of unidentified strangers; Hard Day’s Night-style hysteria as screaming fans chase the band across railway tracks and invade the stage en masse; Mick and Keith pissed and trading Elvis impressions around a hotel ballroom piano.

Just as fascinating as the picture of the band, however, is the context around them. It’s 1965, but the old, grey, vanishing parochial world we glimpse as background to their revolution could as easily be 1948. Whitehead uniquely captures the real sense of the group, and their fans, trying to escape this grinding British reality by creating something else, something that doesn’t really exist yet – the new world of this music – to believe in, to live in, instead.

A version of this review ran in Uncut magazine, September 2012