Sunday, July 25, 2010

August 14, 2009: The Lost World: The Rolling Stones in ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Developing a movie project is such a convoluted process that it’s amazing any films ever get made at all. There are the budgetary problems, and the casting difficulties, and the conflicts between directors and producers that have caused more than a few projects to be aborted before reaching term. In this on-going series I’ve dubbed “The Lost World”, I’ll be looking at some of these sweet abortions.

The Rolling Stones in A Clockwork Orange

Anyone past the age of two knows that A Clockwork Orange is hardly a lost film. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopic novel has been widely praised and widely criticized for its cinematic innovations, its lurid depictions of rape and violence perpetrated by pre-punk teens, and the true crimes it inspired (causing Kubrick to pull it from screenings in Britain from 1972 until his death in 1999, which he did on the advice of police after the director received numerous death threats). Images of Malcolm McDowell as the youthful scoundrel Alex DeLarge in his black bowler, white boiler suit, massive cod piece, and single false eyelash have been used to sell posters, T-shirts, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, buttons, and toys. However, the leering droog visage staring back from the movie screen and all this sundry merchandise was almost that of Mick Jagger.

The Rolling Stones’ involvement with A Clockwork Orange began with their Burgess-obsessed manager/producer, Andrew Loog Oldham. The fair-haired upstart discovered the novel around the time he moved into Jagger and Richards’s London flat in 1964. Oldham thrilled to the anarchy and extremism of the tale, as well as the colorful “nadsat” language Burgess invented (abetted by a stiff dose of Russian) for Alex and his droogs. He then began penning liner notes to the Stones’ albums in pseudo-Burgess blather. The album Rolling Stones No.2 (and The Rolling Stones Now! in the U.S.) included the controversial tidbit, “Cast deep in your pocket for loot to buy this disc of groovies and fancy words. If you don't have bread, see that blind man— knock him on his head, steal his wallet, and low and behold you have the loot, if you put it in the boot, good, another one sold!” The Stones’ record labels on both sides of the pond corrected the offending passage by pasting a new back cover over the original (much as Capitol would do to the front cover of the Beatles’ Yesterday… and Today a year later), but such censorship did nothing to quell Oldham’s zeal for drawing parallels between his scruffy, nasty Rock & Roll band and the scruffy, nasty band of hooligans in A Clockwork Orange. He schemed to make these parallels even more pronounced by purchasing the rights to the novel for adaptation into the Rolling Stones’ pitch-black response to A Hard Day’s Night.

Oldham imagined Jagger in the lead role of Alex DeLarge with the rest of the Stones serving as his droogs, but he failed to acquire the novel’s rights. In a 2007 interview with, the now addled Oldham remarked, “I couldn’t get the rights to make A Clockwork Orange because Anthony Burgess thought that he had cancer and just wrote furiously and took money in from others.” Whatever that means, the rights had already been bought by New York lawyer/aspiring producer Si Litvinoff. Oldham tried lining up other film projects for the Stones, such as the self-scripted Back Behind and in Front and the intriguingly titled Only Lovers Left Alive, but none of these emerged either. The only film he managed to get together was an hour-long tour documentary called Charlie is My Darling (1966), which is well-worth viewing for interesting interviews with Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman and some fairly funny drunken antics from Jagger and Richards (view the film in its entirety here on You Tube).

Aside from his continued appropriation of nadsat in his goofy liner notes, Andrew Oldham’s involvement with A Clockwork Orange ends here. The Rolling Stones’ does not. In 1967, around the time the Stones scared their manager out of the fold by purposely bungling early sessions for their psychedelic masterpiece Their Satanic Majesties Request, photographer Michael Cooper (who was responsible for the album’s famous 3-D cover) supposedly began collaborating on an adaptation of A Clockwork Orange with satirist Terry Southern. The two men had Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night; Help!) in mind to direct and David Hemmings (Blow Up; Barbarella) to play Alex. Southern then optioned the novel from Litvinoff for a mere $1,000. When Lester turned down the offer, Cooper stepped up to occupy the director’s chair. Hemmings was soon out of the picture, as well, and Mick and the Stones were once again being considered to star. According to rumor, the project died after a treatment of the film was sent to the British Lord Chamberlain, who supposedly responded with a curt note reading, “I know this book and there is no way you can make a movie of it. It deals with youthful incitement, which is illegal.” Scheduling conflicts might have also impeded the film. Considering that Jagger, Richards, and Jones all faced potentially lengthy prison sentences for drug charges in ’67 (while also slogging away on Satanic Majesties), this seems a likely explanation.            
                             Michael Cooper’s cover for Their Satanic Majesties Request

Richards, Jones, Wyman, and Watts were now out of the Clockwork Orange running, but Jagger remained. In mid-2008, a late-‘60s letter from Si Litvinoff to the great British director John Schlesinger (Billy Liar; Midnight Cowboy; The Marathon Man) was reportedly found. In the letter, Litvinoff attempted to entice Schlesinger into adapting Burgess’s novel with Jagger playing Alex and the Beatles providing the score (!). As excerpted by The Guardian, the letter insisted, “After you've read the script and novel I'm sure you will see the incredible potential we all see in this project… This film should break ground in its language, cinematic style and soundtrack. [And] the Beatles love the project.” Litvinoff failed to convince Schlesinger, but he had no such problems when he encountered the legendary Stanley Kubrick, who’d been a fan of the novel ever since Terry Southern slipped him a copy of it on the set of Dr. Strangelove. In 1972, Kubrick rhapsodized to Rolling Stone magazine, “One could almost say that it’s the kind of book that you have to look hard to find a reason not to do. It has everything: great ideas, a great plot, external action, interesting side characters and one of the most unique leading characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction—Alex.” Of course, a notorious perfectionist like Stanley Kubrick wasn’t about to consider a barely experienced actor like Mick Jagger to play a character he adored as much as Alex (at this point, Jagger had only acted in the bizarre Donald Cammell/Nicholas Roeg film Performance, in which he basically impersonated band mate Brian Jones). Malcolm McDowell won the role, and history was made.

So the Rolling Stones were no longer part of the Clockwork Orange film, but they had earned themselves a permanent place in Clockwork Orange lore. All things considered, the loss of their version of the film is not something to be lamented, as Kubrick crafted a piece of art as fascinating and formidable as any of his great works. Without the necessary acting chops, Jagger would not have done Alex adequate justice, and the idea of the other Stones as his droogs is downright laughable (cries of “For the love of mercy, don’t give Bill or Charlie any lines!” surely would have echoed throughout Shepperton Studios). But as a piece of Rock & Roll memorabilia, the movie would have been priceless. In any event, the Stones practically got to star in their own version of A Clockwork Orange when the violence and mayhem-laden Gimme Shelter was released in 1970. And even if Kubrick never considered the Stones to appear in his Clockwork Orange, he did right by the band when he chose “Paint It, Black” to play over the closing credits of Full Metal Jacket sixteen years later.

Together at last: Stanley Kubrick and the Rolling Stones

All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.