The Stones had been off the road for nearly two years when they decided to do this film showcase in December of 1968, and then promptly shelved it. As it turns out, they get some competition in their own 1968 showcase from the Who, Taj Mahal, and John Lennon. The movie looks like it was shot for television (which it was), so the color isn't what one would hope for, and as a feature it recalls Renoir's The Little Theater of Jean Renoir (another circus-based showcase, done around the same time), except this has rock & roll in it. You glimpse the early Jethro Tull miming to the prerecorded track of "Song for Jeffrey" (with future Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi subbing for Mick Abrahams); the Who, in their top pre-Tommy form, doing their mini-opera "A Quick One" (a clip that the Stones have allowed out before), providing a great showcase for Keith Moon's scene-stealing antics and not enough of John Entwistle; the oft-forgotten Taj Mahal, sounding more like the Spencer Davis Group than the Spencer Davis Group could, rasping his way through "Ain't That a Lot of Love," which sounds like an improved version of "Gimme Some Lovin'"; Dirty Mac, the name given to the John Lennon-Keith Richards-Mitch Mitchell-Eric Clapton supergroup doing a killer version of "Yer Blues" -- Lennon's work shows just how good he was on-stage even after a two-and-a-half-year layoff from concerts; and Marianne Faithfull (in the only really good-looking sequence, introduced by Charlie Watts) doing her best Edith Piaf-inspired work on "Something Better," the B-side of "Sister Morphine." The playing on Yoko Ono's spot is fine until she starts singing. And between it all you get some broken-down circus acrobatic and fire-eating acts.
The Stones' portion is better than articles about The Circus over the years have led one to believe. The bandmembers are in top form throughout, though perhaps not as animated as they might've been if this performance had been shot at, say, one o'clock in the afternoon instead of one o'clock in the morning. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" gets only its second live performance, and Jagger and Richards swing right into their first formal concert in two years, ripping through their best single in three years. "Parachute Woman" is a song the Stones otherwise didn't do much (or at all) on-stage, and it's so good here that it makes one wish they'd been able to play more concerts during the Beggars Banquet era. Brian Jones plays slide on a Gibson Firebird 7 for "No Expectations," his very last contribution to the group, while Keith strums an acoustic -- his contribution on "You Can't Always Get What You Want" is more tenuous. "Sympathy for the Devil" gets a beautifully dramatic introduction, and the performance here combines the best components of the studio original and the vibrancy of the Stones' performances on their 1969 tour. Finally, "Salt of the Earth" not only works well as music, but consciously parodies the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" video, which Jagger appeared in. Musically and visually, this is much more than a 1960s artifact, and is certainly a worthwhile investment. [The laserdisc version was mastered in AC-3, with sound that matched the CD version and a picture so sharp that you could see dirt on the camera lenses; the videocassette version was less sharp, as one might expect. ABKCO has subsequently released Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus on DVD, including a 2004 edition featuring bonus material.]