The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus – Finally Released Theatrically

The long-gestating “Rock and Roll Circus” has finally been released theatrically. Shot in late December 1968, Mick Jagger took a page from The Beatles and decided a film could replace the next cycle of interviews and promotion. But for a variety of reasons, the film was shelved. The soundtrack and videocassette were eventually released in 1996, with an improved DVD version in 2004. I was mostly ambivalent about the performances, despite the quality of the lineup.

Seeing the film theatrically, however, made me stunned to realize it had been essentially dormant for so long. The 4K restoration is stunning.

Seeing it the day Jagger announced he was headed into surgery (postponing their next massive tour) was both ironic and disconcerting.

On a stage constructed like a circus tent, the performers entered the ring mostly miming brass horns to a circus theme, with Enwtistle likely the only performer actually able to play the horn he carried.

Jethro Tull opened the festivities with Ian Anderson looking much like the title character he would write about several years later in “Aqualung,” his long trenchcoat and bedraggled appearance undoubtedly off putting to many. Anderson was still working on his one-legged flamingo style of flute playing. Look for a pre-Black Sabbath Tony Iommi on guitar. Tull was the first of what would essentially be all quartet bands until the Stones finished up 15 hours later.

The Who were excellent: tight, fresh and exuberant. Indeed, their performance was so strong that Jagger apparently pulled the whole production from the BBC’s television schedule. The Who assayed “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” their first attempt at a song cycle, with echoes of Tommy still to come. Tight vocal harmonies, exuberant drumming by Moon, exuberant leaps from Townshend and tremendous camerawork made for an astounding performance.

Marianne Faithfull sang live apparently to tape, resplendent in a purple gown in the center ring, essentially unmoving as the cameras swirled around her. Taj Mahal was lean and swaggering, delivering a soulful version of “Ain’t That a Lot of Love.”

When one looks up the definition of British supergroup, one is unlikely to find The Dirty Mac, this one off gathering of Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell on loan from Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Keith Richards on bass. (Interestingly Keef’s future compadre in arms Ronnie Wood was across town also slinging bass duty, for Jeff Beck while Rod Stewart sang vocals). The Dirty Mac‘s version of “Yer Blues,” from the recently completed White Album, was invigorating, the quartet tore through the song with conviction. Unfortunately, Yoko (who had been previously writhing underneath a black sheet at the performers’ feet) then emerged for a shrieking instrumental accompanied by violinist Ivry Gitlis, who held a straight face while trading glass shattering screeches with Yoko. The rest of the band seemed to ignore what was going on at the front of the stage, each maintaining remarkably straight faces and straight ahead blues licks.

As headliners, the Stones revealed what would make them a long lasting global phenomenon, essentially going strong 50 years later. Jagger, then at his height of androgyny, was well practiced in the art of knowing the camera’s placement, playing to the lens at key moments. Renditions of recently penned hits like “Sympathy for the Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” were remarkable. The band’s energy led by an increasingly boisterous Jagger was infectious. Camera cuts to the audience revealed Lennon, Townshend and Moon larking about in delight. Brian Jones, unaware that his time on earth was down to seven months, was superb on electric slide guitar, but retreated to maracas at one point and was nothing more than a fixture for his last performance with the Stones. Nicky Hopkins on piano was a plus. By the end, Charlie Watts looked a bit seasick and Bill Wyman had made a point of ignoring the camera while remaining more immobile than even fellow bassist Entwistle earlier.

Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg kept things from mostly skidding off the rails, he would go ​on later to direct The Beatles’ “Let It Be” documentary. The set design and colorful costuming, not only on the performers but on the audience as well, perfectly reflected the era. As presented theatrically via Dolby Vision laser projection and with Dolby Atmos, the sound was incredible. The original audio was preserved by production geniuses Glyn Johns and Jimmy Miller. I have been listening to the CD for many years, always wondering if anyone else thought the performances were adequate at best. Here, when married to the excellent video production, the entire evening was raised many notches. This time capsule is an excellent snapshot of a moment in time. About the only equivalent gathering of such an impressive lineup was 2016’s Desert Trip, affectionately also known as Oldchella.​

Originally, the lineup was to include The Small Faces, even back then Townshend and Ronnie Lane were kindred spirits. (After leaving The Faces, Lane took the circus idea on the road in a commendable but commercially dodgy​ caravan tour, setting up outside town and villages in hopes enough folks would show up to pay expenses. Look for the too-long-in-coming definitive Ronnie Lane box set next month).

The editing is fantastic, kudos to Ruth Foster. Given the hulking size of the cameras, the close-ups are surprisingly excellent. These closeups also showed that these Brits had suffered lack of fluoride for a long time and had still yet to accrue enough money to get their teeth fixed.

In the finale Townshend can be seen decked out in a Cardinal Richelieu hat looping about arm in arm with Moon. Despite Jagger’s initial reservations, a splendid time was had by all.

Remaining theatrical screening information available here.

Groovy trailer available here



Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.