For over two decades, “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” was a lost film, unfinished and unseen, more rumor than pop culture memory. In theory, it captured a lot of what anyone might desire in a rock ‘n’ roll movie from London circa 1968: the Stones, the Who, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and more.
On a sound stage designed like the inside of a circus big top, each of the musicians performed at the height of their powers while mingling with trapeze artists, fire-eaters and other semi-dazzling acts from a traveling circus.
“The clowns and the Rolling Stones got along very well,” recalls the film’s director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 78.
Yet the film’s planned television premiere was delayed indefinitely for one reason: The Stones thought the Who’s performance was better.
It took 28 years, but the Stones came around in time for Lindsay-Hogg to finish the legendary rock film for a 1996 premiere at the New York Film Festival and release on home video. “You had these little explosions of greatness in the room,” says Lindsay-Hogg of the two-day shoot, “and the Rolling Stones recognized that.”
Now, in time for the North American leg of the Stones’ ongoing No Filter Tour, “Circus” has been remastered for a limited U.S. theatrical run during the first week of April. Among the Southland theaters showing the film will be the Cinemark Playa Vista on April 1 and April 3. Last week, Lindsay-Hogg, who now lives in Los Angeles, attended a private screening in Hollywood of the film, recast in vivid Dolby Vision color and Dolby Atmos sound.
“I was thrilled by it anew, which I hadn’t been for a long time,” says Lindsay-Hogg, whose career began in England as director on the ’60s music show “Ready Steady Go!,” where the camerawork could be as frenzied as the acts onstage.
He also directed music videos for the Stones, Beatles and the Who, and made the intimate Beatles documentary “Let It Be.” In the pipeline is a long-awaited restoration of the 1970 Beatles film, which will follow an entirely new film being assembled from the same 55 hours of footage by New Zealand director Peter Jackson.
Attending the “Circus” screening was Brett Morgen, director of 2015’s acclaimed “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” and his own Stones documentary, 2012’s “Crossfire Hurricane.” In an onstage Q&A with Lindsay-Hogg following the film, Morgen celebrated the filmmaker’s essential work with these epochal musical figures.
"The man defined the image that so many of us have of the Stones and the Beatles,” Morgen said in an interview with The Times. "He created a new language. You look at the ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ video and what he did is as innovative as what Busby Berkeley did to the musical.”
In “Circus,” the Stones performed several songs from the just-completed “Beggar’s Banquet,” the first of four consecutive album milestones that defined the band’s greatest work. There was also Lennon leading a supergroup he called the Dirty Mac, with Eric Clapton on guitar, Keith Richards on bass, and drummer Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience performing a new Beatles song, “Yer Blues.” Yoko Ono then joined for an improvisational jam.
Other performers included Marianne Faithfull, Taj Mahal and Jethro Tull. The Who’s playful reading of the mini-rock opera “A Quick One While He’s Away” was close to perfect. Jagger had personally invited all of them.
“In those days, rock ‘n’ roll bands would arrive late. You’d schedule something for 1 and they’d arrive at 4,” recalls Lindsay-Hogg. “But on this particular day, because they all respected each other, everybody was on time.”
A London sound stage was rented and Lindsay-Hogg hired the best camera operators from “Ready Steady Go!” The production also used experimental cameras from France, which shot both 16mm film and provided a video feed to the control room. Aside from having to change film canisters every 10 minutes, the new cameras frequently stopped working.
“When one of the cameras had broken down for the 11th time that day, we had a little break,” the director recalls. The musicians would then retreat to their dressing rooms. “I went backstage to see how everybody was, and they were all sitting in a room – John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton – playing blues on guitar and harmonica. Keith Moon was playing spoons on a table.”
The Stones didn’t get onstage to perform until 2 a.m. It was the final live appearance of guitarist Brian Jones, dazed and fading from drug abuse, but still able to re-create his heartbreaking slide guitar lines on “No Expectations.”
Within months of filming, Jones left the band and drowned soon after. Jagger went to Australia to star in “Ned Kelly.” Lindsay-Hogg traveled to California to work on a film. The momentum of the era pushed its participants forward, but somehow left “Circus” behind until the footage was rediscovered in the ’90s.
Lindsay-Hogg continued working with the Stones through the early 1980s, directing several music videos, from “It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)” to “Waiting on a Friend.” He turned his attention to feature films, TV specials and directing theater, though he remains friendly with the Stones.