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Documentarian ONDI TIMONER talks about
Robert Frank's documentary, Cocksucker Blues

L: Director Ondi Timoner; R: A still from Cocksucker Blues


Friday, October 16, 2009

By Robert K. Elder

Documentarian Ondi Timoner stormed Sundance in 2004 with Dig!, her chronicle of rockers The Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It won her the Grand Jury Prize — a feat she repeated in 2009 with We Live in Public, her take on privacy in the Internet age, as told through the lens of Web entrepreneur and artist Josh Harris. We Live in Public is currently in limited theatrical release.

For The Best Films You’ve Never Seen, Timoner chose to talk about Robert Frank’s infamous, unreleased Cocksucker Blues, a documentary about the Rolling Stones during their 1972 US tour.

Here, Timoner talks about the film and its connection to her work.

Rob Elder: How would you describe Cocksucker Blues to someone who has never seen it?

Ondi Timoner: It’s a film that feels like how it is. Form follows content, so it feels chaotic, as roughshod as raucous as the Rolling Stones. And therefore it’s a well-made film in my opinion. Even though it’s completely rough around the edges, it captures the feeling of what it’s supposed to be like in that band, at that time. That’s the most important thing for a documentary to do: Literally deliver an experience to an audience instead of telling them what to think or how to feel.

RE: We should note just a few biographical details about the film: It was directed by Robert Frank, a very famous photographer; it was shot during the Stones’ 1972 tour, their first return to America after the Altamont concert disaster; the Stones commissioned Frank to do the film because they liked him and he shot the photos for their album Exile on Main Street. Can you tell me what the most memorable scene is for you?

OT: I liked the fact that they throw the TV out the window. It’s really a memorable, iconic moment and it sticks with me because it’s a sign of bucking the system, throwing out mainstream culture for a new order. It stands for so much in one single move.

The train ride is also very memorable because it feels extremely intimate and behind the scenes. Excess: The fact that he’s on a plane with all these girls with their boobs hanging out and the guys flipping out. It’s just chaos, and I think any film that takes you deep into the experience is satisfying by its very nature.

RE: It can be unsavory. There is a scene in which someone is negotiating with a prostitute. Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch said, “It’s definitely one of the best movies about rock ’n’ roll I’ve ever seen. It makes you think being a rock ’n’ roll star is one of the last things you’d ever want to do.”

OT: Oh, I don’t take that away from it. I feel, more than anything, it’s saying, “Well, here’s how it is.” It’s without judgment. This isn’t all of rock ’n’ roll, but it’s what this particularly incredible, original band is doing at this time. And it’s very powerful.

RE: It’s also a film under a very interesting legal precedent. It remains unreleased, and cannot be shown publicly unless the director is present. You can, however, find bootleg copies and some of it has been posted on YouTube.

OT: The Rolling Stones didn’t actually approve of it coming out, which is surprising to me. I don’t feel like it’s anything that’s too out of line with their image. In fact, I think that it would be a positive. Maybe because of the prostitutes and drugs, they just didn’t want to have it out there. However, it is out there.

I’m all about exposing the reality of something. It’s funny that Courtney Taylor from the Dandy Warhols just came out against my film Dig! because he feels he can’t live it down. He’s known as Courtney from Dig! I think that’s really funny. Once you do something and you are caught in a film, you kind of can’t get past it. He’s in a film and it actually served his career very well.

RE: Is there a link between Dig! and Cocksucker Blues?

OT: There is something to that film. The fact that it exists and it maintained its form and the filmmaker kept his form and did his take on it. Cocksucker Blues just made its way into people’s lives no matter what.

I think it actually probably helped me to feel that no matter what, I was going to make Dig! There was nothing that was going to stop me from making that film. Even if the band denies it, the film still exists. But I was always going to make Dig!, as crazy as it got and it did surely get crazy. I thought to myself, “Well, it will see the light of day, even if it’s not in a theater near you.” And that was helpful, to have that, to know that Cocksucker Blues is on my shelf, and that’s really what I care about – people seeing my work – more than anything else.

Like right now, I’m self-distributing We Live in Public. I travel and I represent the film. It’s exhausting. I work hard to put it out there. I couldn’t accept any of the deals we were offered. It meant a lot more work for me this year, but I believe in the film and no matter how tired I get, I am still motivated by people’s interest in the film and how much it affects them. I’m not going to give up.

Cocksucker Blues made me feel, very early on in my career, like he made the film for the sake of making it. There’s the stark reality of what happened, the truth of it. It made me feel the frontier was wide open for me.

RE: Given your history with Dig! and the Rolling Stones’ suppression of Cocksucker Blues, did you have any apprehension about showing We Live in Public to Josh Harris, the subject of the film?

OT: Josh didn’t watch the film until quite recently. He said he was scared to see it, was reluctant to see my take on his life. But really, he was scared to see his nervous breakdown. He watched it from the DVD commentary track. We flew him in from the Third world for that and he never left. Once the film won Sundance, he just stayed and read about himself in the press. But he had not seen the film until last week, when he recorded the DVD commentary on camera. I have already laughed through the first half and then talked back at the screen through the second half.

RE: Do have any fear that he may one day turn on the film like Courtney Taylor did with Dig!?

OT: Hell no, I couldn’t care less if Courtney turns on the film or Josh turns on the film. I believe that I portrayed everyone how they are.

I sat on this film until our lives were directly impacted by the Internet in this way and we were acting like we were in the bunker. Until I saw Facebook status updates in 2007, I wasn’t interested in completing the film. I finished it for all of us to become conscious of the dark side of the Internet. At the same time, I think it’s the most powerful and wonderful tool of our lifetime. I think Josh is an incredible cautionary tale.


Read the entire interview in the forthcoming book The Best Films You’ve Never Seen (Chicago Review Press).

We Live in Public opens in Chicago on October 16th at the Music Box Theatre. For more information, visit or follow Timoner via Twitter @wlip.



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