Fifty years ago, Jean-Luc Godard filmed an intimate, groundbreaking documentary about the Rolling Stones, capturing the recording of one of their most seminal tracks: “Sympathy for the Devil.” The 1968 documentary shares the same title, though it was originally titled One Plus One before its producers controversially took final cut away from Godard.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) recently held a limited theatrical release for the 50th anniversary of Sympathy for the Devil, which was kicked off with a Q&A with New York Film Academy-Los Angeles (NYFA-LA) Chair of Cinematography Tony Richmond, A.S.C., B.S.C. Richmond served as Godard’s director of photography on the documentary, and supervised the color grading of the newly restored, 4K version of the film.
The restoration was done in London by Arrow Films, working off the still-preserved original 35mm negative. “It’s just wonderful,” says Richmond of the project, adding it was “such an honor to go back to a film I shot fifty years ago and give it another life.”
Sympathy for the Devil was one of Richmond’s earliest films as director of photography. He has mostly worked on narrative features since then, including Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Sandlot, and Legally Blonde. The London-born, BAFTA-winning cinematographer has resided as Faculty Chair of NYFA-LA’s cinematography school since 2015, where students receive hands-on training in the unique visual language of film with state-of-the-art equipment they can use on their classmates’ productions.
Sympathy was a landmark moment in rock and roll documentaries, preceding other films like Gimme Shelter and The Last Waltz. Along with a strong political message, the film captured the birth of one of the Rolling Stones’ most famous hits. It was also a turbulent shoot, with legendary French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard butting heads with his producers, who changed his original ending. As an infamous story goes, at a screening of the film, Godard attempted to screen his original ending outside in the parking lot, and when one of the producers intervened, he punched him in the face.
Additionally, some of the film was shot on the streets guerilla-style, without permits. Some shots included jumping out of Godard’s car to film his wife, Anna, spray-painting walls, roads, and vehicles, and then hopping back in the car and taking off before the police arrived.
With an incredible story told by the film and another one around the making of it, it was no surprise that MoMA would host a limited release on its 50th anniversary. The Q&A with Tony Richmond was held after the September 13 screening, which Richmond told NYFA was “a great success. I enjoyed the Q&A, telling them how much in awe I was with Jean-Luc Godard and what an honor it was to shoot a film for him at such a young age.”
In a recent profile by Rolling Stone magazine, Richmond went into further detail about the shoot, describing how they would pre-light for each member of the band before they would stroll into the studio after a late night of recording and maybe some hard partying: “We knew where Mick was gonna be, where Keith was gonna be, where Brian and Charlie were gonna be, and it was lit in such a way that we never had to touch anything between takes or disturb the Stones in any way…
“And then the guys would come in, and they’d get down to work, and we would shoot. We were very quiet, and we had a very, very small crew — just a guy pushing the dolly, a focus-puller, Jean-Luc and I, and everybody else was way in the background.”
Speaking with NYFA, Richmond added, “I wouldn’t know what we were going to shoot until [Mick Jagger] arrived on the set. I can’t tell you how exciting and frightening that was.”
All told, the new 4K restoration and MoMA’s limited release of Sympathy for the Devil went very well, and included both the theatrical and Godard’s original ending. Richmond told Rolling Stone, “I hadn’t seen it again on a large screen until recently. And I have to say, I think it’s really fantastic… You really see how they’re putting the music together.”
[UPDATE: November 7, 2018: Sympathy for the Devil will also be screened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles on November 8, 2018.]