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Rolling with rock royalty

New Bedford native’s film traces Stones’ ‘Exile’ days

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / May 24, 2010

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CANNES, France — If so much of movie-industry success combines talent and luck, Stephen Kijak’s luck is that he’s talented.

The New Bedford native is sitting on a rooftop from which you can see the Mediterranean, basking in his moment at the world’s biggest film festival. His hourlong documentary, “Stones in Exile,’’ arrives on DVD in June. It premiered with a lot of hoopla last week at a sold-out screening in the Director’s Fortnight program of the Cannes Film Festival.

Outside the theater, people crowded the barricades eager to see and scream at Mick Jagger (“Meek! Meek!’’). Inside, it was a more civilized version of the same.

Kijak, 40, who participated with Jagger in a post-screening Q&A, found the euphoria a little surreal. “People love Mick,’’ he said the following day. “To have had that life since you were in your 20s and to have been at the forefront of what’s made you famous, that’s astonishing. For me, just being near all that is a little insane.’’

And to think it happened in almost less than a year. Jagger and his longtime producing partner, Victoria Lee Pearman, wanted to add a film to the list of goodies they planned to accompany a remastering of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic, “Exile on Main Street,’’ which was recently released.

In the search for a director who could give them what they wanted (“something impressionistic,’’ said Pearman, “and no bloody talking heads’’), they watched scores of documentaries. One they found especially impressive: Kijak’s “Scott Walker — 30 Century Man.’’ Made in 2007, produced by David Bowie, and nominated for the British equivalent of the Oscar, “Scott Walker’’ is an energetic but wistful documentary about the American-born pop singer who became a British sensation in the 1960s then vanished.

In 2009, Kijak (pronounced “kayak’’) received what he described as a short, cryptic e-mail from Pearman. “It said she was president of Mick’s production company and what was my availability,’’ Kijak said. “She didn’t say what it was about or for.’’ Kijak did the sensible thing. “I just said, ‘I’m available!’ Miraculously, it was ‘Exile on Main Street.’ When I heard that, I was over the moon. That’s the greatest record ever. When do we start?’’

This is quite a moment Kijak is caught up in. The ballyhooed return of “Exile’’ has reignited the debate about both the record’s greatness and the band’s physical condition when it recorded some portions of the album in Keith Richards’s villa in 1971, an hour or so from Palais Stephanie, where Kijak’s movie had its premiere. Last week, Jimmy Fallon dedicated an entire evening of his talk show to the record and clips from the film. This sort of collective enthusiasm for today’s pop music is rare, let alone for a 38-year-old double album.

At its best, “Exile’’ is the pinnacle of the band’s studio recordings. At worst, it’s imitative of country, blues, and soul but still a very, very good imitation. Either way, the legend around the record has crystallized into myth. Drowning in back taxes, the Stones decamped to the South of France, where they managed to record despite drugs, debauchery, and dissent among the musicians. The highs and lows are captured in Dominique Tarlé’s photographs of the band in and around Richards’s villa and in Robert Frank’s still-unreleased 1972 tour documentary.

Frank and the Stones continue to argue over the film, which the band commissioned but didn’t like. Frank says he made the movie he wanted. According to a court order, it can’t be shown unless he’s present, although bootlegs aren’t hard to find. The commission put Kijak in the awkward position of being another authorized Stones collaborator. What if he was given the Frank treatment?

Kijak, Pearman, and Jagger each said that was never a problem. “I’m always trying to be as careful as possible choosing the directors to do the work,’’ Jagger said, sitting with a handful of reporters. With Kijak, he says, “Either I was lucky or I made a great decision. Even though he’s not a famous director, he did a really good job.’’ Which is saying something for a man who’s worked with Jean-Luc Godard, Nicolas Roeg, and David Fincher.

Kijak was given access to more than 40 hours of outtakes from Frank’s film. He could use Tarlé’s pictures. But the only film footage of the action at Richards’s villa was shot by the Stones’ then bassist, Bill Wyman, who Kijak says has locked it away. Working with the English artist-director Grant Gee, he filled in the gaps with minor visual and dramatic reconstructions, finding a production designer and a 16mm Canon Scoopic so the new images would match Frank’s.

“As work-for-hire goes, we were given an incredible amount of freedom,’’ Kijak said, wearing dark jeans, slip-on sneakers, big Ray-Ban shades, and a seersucker jacket. He has a creamy baritone whose calm belied what he described as a level of disbelief about where his career is at the moment.

Kijak’s proximity to rock royalty doesn’t appear to have fazed him.

“I’ve always been into music,’’ he said. Kijak did album reviews for the Barnstable High School newspaper, Insight, and did time working at Spinnaker Records in Hyannis. He also says he grew up in a family of creative, beautiful people. His mother, JoAnn, was an actress, singer, and 1964’s Miss New Bedford.

“My mom’s side is the arty side,’’ Kijak said. “My grandfather was a painter. My father’s side is more the hard-working salespeople, workers, real honest hard-working New Bedford stock. It’s a brilliant balance, actually, between the ethereal and the practical. They came to London for the ‘Scott Walker’ premiere. They would have loved Cannes.’’

Kijak’s first film after college was a feature he released in 1996 called “Never Met Picasso,’’ with Alexis Arquette and Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the “Superman’’ movies. It was an intelligent, well made comedy about love and art. The young man who directed it seemed headed for a career making smart American independent movies with feeling and ideas. He also co-directed 2002’s “Cinemania,’’ an excellent cinéma-vérité-style documentary about five New York neurotics whose obsessive compulsion is movies. He also directed episodes of the makeover show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.’’

How Kijak came to be at the center of all this British music is still a blur to him.

“I was obsessed with British music growing up,’’ he said. “Mainly the Cure, New Order, Smiths, the usual. Then I just went backwards. It wasn’t until after the Scott Walker film that I was sort of burnt on that sound and started turning to old country and the blues. So [‘Exile’] came at a very good time.’’

The day after Kijak first heard from Pearman, they arranged to have lunch. She has a house on Martha’s Vineyard, and the Massachusetts connection between her and Kijak probably didn’t hurt. But the weather should have.

“As soon as she picked me up from the ferry hail the size of golf balls rained down,’’ Kijak said. “It was June. Very weird. I took it as a good omen.’’

So did Pearman. Just as it seemed nothing was working for her or Jagger, they found Kijak. A freak storm wasn’t going to stop that. “I just felt this sense of relief,’’ she said. “I knew he was the one.’’

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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