Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Review: 'The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus' Limited Deluxe Edition

1968 was a transitional year in which psychedelia gave way to the British Blues Boom, pop stars metamorphosed into rock stars, the sharp style of Swinging London frumped into patchwork hippie fashions, and the vitality and optimism of the sixties began slumping toward the seventies’ rude awakening. There is no better visual document of this brief yet pungent turning point than The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus. To celebrate the release of Beggars Banquet, which critics love to paint as a big comeback album following a “misguided” foray into psychedelia, The Rolling Stones put together a rag-tag big-top show for the small screen featuring buddies such as Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Jethro Tull, and The Who, as well as a couple of circus acts.

The specific selection of performers fit with the transitional nature of ’68: we see John Lennon drifting from The Beatles to jam with his new creative/life partner and a makeshift group christened The Dirty Mac, Tull during a very brief period in which Tony Iommi was part of the band, The Who right at the precipice of Rock Opera superstardom, and the Stones on the verge of losing a rather haggard Brian Jones in all senses. That makes the Rock & Roll Circus historically significant. It’s also a great load of fun. The Lennon super group featuring Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell, Keith Richards, violinist Ivry Gitlis, and Yoko Ono being a literal once-in-a-lifetime event. The Who’s stunning performance of “A Quick One, While He’s Away” could very well be the greatest live performance by any performer on film. And despite being unsatisfied with their work, the Stones are nothing short of a gas as they fire through fresh classics such as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Sympathy for the Devil” and debut “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” six months before its release. Mick Jagger has never looked so preternaturally beautiful.

Why The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus was not aired in the sixties remains a matter of debate. Did the Stones want to protect the world from witnessing the sorry state of Brian Jones? Was Mick Jagger really seething with jealousy over The Who’s admittedly show-stealing performance? Did he just think his band was a bit rusty following 20 months off the road? Whatever the reason, this circus remained shelved until 1996 when it finally received a VHS release. In 2004, it made it to a great sounding, nice looking, bonus-feature festooned DVD. 15 years after that, The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus is now making its Blu-ray and widescreen debut in a four-disc edition.

The film was in good shape back in 2004, so it was not in need of any major surgery, yet changes are very evident. Grain has been scrubbed away with a heavy hand and the color is brighter and a bit more saturated. The widescreen is even more radical, but only because we lose a good deal of information at the top and bottom of the image, so the full-screen option remains preferable. The audio is just a hair short of brick walled.

Almost all of the supplements from the 2004 DVD have been ported over to the new Blu-ray edition: the engrossing interview with Pete Townshend; the bonus performances from the awesome Taj Mahal, The Dirty Mac, and pianist Julius Katchen; the audio commentaries. The only major casualties are a dated video for a Fatboy Slim remix of “Sympathy for the Devil” and a photo gallery. No big loss there, though it’s too bad the groovy animated menus were abandoned too.

The other three discs in this set include all the video content on DVD, the entire audio of the hour-long film on CD, and a bonus CD with all of the audio from the Blu-ray’s bonus footage, as well as two exclusive pieces of audio from The Dirty Mac. They are both jams and a formless instrumental actually makes better listening than an awful run through of “Revolution” with off-key, uncommitted singing from Lennon. It’s all assembled in an attractive, fold-out package with a couple of previously published essays by David Dalton.

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