By BOB STRAUSS
Los Angeles Daily News
It was December 1968, and it was captured for posterity on a never-aired television special called "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus." Now, after 28 years, one of the milestone events in rock history finally can be seen on videocassette and laser disc.
The hourlong program features, of course, the host band at its creative peak. The "Beggars Banquet" album had just been released, Mick Jagger was in the full flower of his satanic majesty, and Brian Jones was still alive and playing with the Stones.
Other acts include the Who; Jethro Tull; American bluesman Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull; Yoko Ono in her first filmed performance with John Lennon; and an ad hoc supergroup, called the Dirty Mac, made up of Lennon, Richards, Eric Clapton and Mitch Mitchell, the drummer from the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Shot during one 21-hour stretch in a television studio dressed to resemble a low-rent English circus tent, the show was one of the rare '60s rock film efforts that actually came off, despite a few glitches, pretty much as planned.
"In those days, when rock 'n' roll film projects lost momentum, it was hard to put them together again," noted "Circus" director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who cited everything from hippie-era disdain for schedules to drug-induced lost weeks-on-end as reasons why few such projects ever were completed.
But it was also a time of great, unexpected changes in the music. Six months after shooting "Circus," Jones set the pattern of self-induced rock-star deaths. A year later, the Stones themselves presided over Altamont, the violence-shattered concert that pretty much put an end to the peace, love and rock 'n' roll spirit the Circus so innocently celebrated.
Indeed, a month after filming the Stones' show, Lindsay-Hogg began shooting what he thought would be a TV special about the Beatles recording their latest album. That turned, unexpectedly, into the film chronicle of the band's disintegration, "Let It Be."
"They were both pretty weird experiences," said Lindsay-Hogg, who pioneered the music video form when he worked for Britain's influential '60s pop music series "Ready, Steady, Go!" "One was a very happy one, which disappeared for 28 years. Another was a less-happy one that came out in its own time span."
The reasons for "Circus' " long disappearance had to do with such eternal human foibles as miscommunication and artistic competitiveness, vanity and perfectionism.
"Everybody showed up on time, and they all found costumes that they liked, neither of which was too common back then," Lindsay-Hogg said of the show's participants. "Everybody thought they were going to have a good time.
"But we had these new, French cameras that had the uncanny habit of breaking down all the time, which caused big delays and forced some reshoots," the filmmaker continued. "So, Jethro Tull, the first act, got on at about 4 p.m. We didn't film John and Yoko until 10, and the Stones didn't start until 2 in the morning.
"Now, although they were used to working at night, they'd never done it after hanging around and hosting a show all day. We didn't finish with them until 7 a.m., and had to do three or more takes of each of their songs. Now, Mick and Keith are very harsh critics of themselves, and when they saw the rough cut they didn't feel they were performing at their best because they were exhausted at the time."
In fact, the head Stones were convinced that the Who, who had performed early in the evening, blew them off the screen. Half-baked plans to reshoot the Stones' set in Rome never came together, proving Lindsay-Hogg's earlier point. So the "Circus' " raw footage was stored away in the Stones' sprawling London headquarters for the next several years.
But then the story really got weird. In the 1970s, the band members moved to France to avoid British taxes, and their London office was switched to a much smaller facility. The film cans were stashed there in bathrooms, under secretaries' desks or wherever else they would fit. Concerned that the valuable footage would be misplaced or damaged by all of this, the band's road manager and occasional sideman Ian Stewart took the film cans to his farm for safekeeping.
"If Ian told anyone except the office temps what he was doing, it never got passed on to anybody else," Lindsay-Hogg explained. "His intentions were above board, surely. But for many years after that, whenever I'd direct a video for the Stones, we'd ask one another what had happened to the footage, then we'd all shrug our shoulders."
Soon after Stewart died in 1985, his wife, Cynthia, was cleaning out the barn and found the film cans lying under a lawnmower and a pair of Wellington boots. A few years later, with the blessing of the Stones and their ex-manager Allen Klein (now "Circus' " ownership partners), Lindsay-Hogg started piecing the show back together.
And what a joy that he did. While the Who do run through an incredibly energetic rendition of their "Tommy" prototype suite "A Quick One (While He's Away)," and the Stones do appear a bit bleary, every performance in the movie is sheer dynamite.
In their very first jam together, Lennon and Clapton create a blistering alternative version of the Beatles wailer "Yer Blues." And Jagger does an especially demonic rendition of "Sympathy for the Devil," tearing off his shirt to reveal a torso covered with tattoos of Satan.
Lindsay-Hogg, the American-raised son of Irish actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, hopes that "Rock and Roll Circus" eventually can be seen on the big screen (it has played once theatrically, at the recently completed New York Film Festival). But even in the video format it was always intended for, the long-unseen concert has a moving quality that transcends standard nostalgia value.
"What we see now is a really extraordinary thing," the filmmaker said. "You have the principal musicians of that explosive time playing under the same roof as friends, before they became rich establishment figures whose tours are sponsored by beer companies. They were offering a totally different lifestyle and view of things, before life had taken its toll on many of them. And they were as good as they ever were - not that the survivors aren't good now, but they were fantastic then.
"And there's a poignancy to seeing this now. Some died too young (Jones, Lennon, Who drummer Keith Moon, Taj Mahal guitarist Jesse Ed Davis). This was an extraordinary event that crystallized an extraordinary time, and that now has an added depth for not having been seen for 28 years."