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The Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon - 1998

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Musically speaking, it’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. Or so it seems on two new tapes that respectively celebrate the blues’ satanic majesties: Robert Johnson and the Rolling Stones.

Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? The Life and Music of Robert Johnson is a documentary bio of Johnson, the pioneering Delta blues guitarist who — with his good looks, rare genius, Faustian obsessions, and mysterious death (in 1938 at age 27) — tempts comparison to Christopher Marlowe. Documentarian Peter W. Meyer revisits Highway 61 and other strange byways to deliver a loving mytho-biography. The director stumbles by entering reenactment territory — the guitarist Keb’ Mo’ impersonates the legend in a series of silvery, shimmery tableaux — but the inherent hokiness of these scenes is mitigated by their sincerity. At any rate, the film’s drive stems from the collected comments — on juke joints and jailhouses, Mississippi culture, and Johnson’s dynamic styling — from his contemporaries and inheritors, among them Keith Richards, whose Rolling Stones have been misinterpreting the blues to brilliant effect for over 30 years. The Rolling Stones Bridges to Babylon — 1998 captures a recent St. Louis concert: 19 songs, a couple of ”special guests,” and a whole lot of overblown whatnot.

Having been the greatest band ever 25 years ago, the Stones have since made a touring career of paying homage to themselves with a massive stage, monstro wattage, and the singular Theater of Mick: Jagger’s outre self-invented strut that evokes both a hopped-up street pimp and a psychotic waterfowl and amounts to a full-body sneer. Your television cannot relay the full impact of such ridiculous grandiosity (nor, for that matter, can an IMAX screen), as it emanates as much from the band’s aura as its environment.

In the face of all this empty spectacle, the tape’s finest moments are small matters of chance. For instance, after a neat, tight millionth rendition of ”It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Mick plucks a ladies’ undergarment from a mike stand, pockets it — ”They’re gonna fit just nice,” he says with relish — then starts into ”Like a Rolling Stone.” The Dylan cover seems gratuitous until, in the middle of the second chorus, Mick gestures the rebel’s eternal urge to the sound man: Turn me up. How does it feel? Like magic. Bridges: B; Wind: B+

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