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Still Rolling: 40 Years of The Rolling Stones on Film – “Sympathy for the Devil”

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By Matt Singer

In honor of their 40 years on movie screens, from 1968’s “Sympathy for the Devil” to last week’s release of “Shine a Light,” we’re taking a look at The Rolling Stones’ filmography, featuring enough collaborations with great directors to make any actor jealous and enough abandoned or aborted projects to give any movie investor heartburn.

04082008_sympathyforthedevil1.jpgSympathy for the Devil (1968)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

The Film: Godard captures the Stones during the recording sessions for “Beggars Banquet” in the summer of 1968 and charts the evolution of the song “Sympathy for the Devil” through a series of uninterrupted long takes. The Stones’ progress is intercut with a series of vignettes about, amongst other things, black revolutionaries, an interview with a woman named “Eve Democracy,” graffiti artists defacing public property with sarcastic slogans like “Cinemarxism” and “Freudemocracy,” and a bookstore where people pay for their purchases of pornography and comic books by giving the shopkeeper a Nazi salute. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 1960s.

The Rolling Stones are: Mick Jagger on vocals and percussion, Keith Richards on guitar and bass, Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass and percussion and Brian Jones on guitar. It’s the classic Stones lineup that first brought the group worldwide fame, but by this point, it was already close to the end. Jones, increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol, found his role in the band he started and, as legend has it, named (after glancing at a Muddy Waters album cover) shrinking. “Sympathy for the Devil” contains no interviews or commentary from the Stones, so a lot is left to interpretation; in light of Jones’ firing from the group almost one year to the day from the events depicted in the film, it’s easy to read a subtext into almost all of his appearances. Though Jones has moments of connection with the rest of the Stones, as in a scene where he shares a cigarette and some chit-chat with Keith Richards, most of the time he seems isolated from his bandmates. In some shots, he’s playing acoustic guitar and there’s no microphone set up to record him; in others, he’s got a microphone, but his audio is buried deep beneath Richards’ electric guitar riffs. During one scene, he delivers his take completely surrounded by veritable cage of soundproofing, an eerie representation of his outsider status. Shortly thereafter, he vanishes from the sessions completely.

With Special Guest Stars: The Stones are the only musical performers in the film, but in a key scene — the first time we hear “Sympathy” with the trademark chorus of “woo-woos!” — the camera pans behind Mick Jagger to reveal the refrain being sung by a group that includes Richards, Jones, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg, though according to Wikipedia, the scene was phony, staged specifically for the camera.

Best Performance: My favorite moment comes near the end of the film,when the band and several studio musicians are jamming on an instrumental. Godard’s camera glides past the guys and passes behind some soundproofing to spot a mysterious woman in a black suit, quietly tapping in rhythm on top of an upright piano. She gives a suggestive glance to the camera and eventually disappears behind the soundproofing panels as the band comes back into view.

04082008_sympathyforthedevil2.jpgYou Can’t Always Get What You Want: Although the film hypothetically follows “Sympathy for the Devil” from its earliest incarnation to its finished form, Godard omits the crucial moments where the song transforms from a slower ballad into its classic, percussive boogie.

Keith Richards is Weird: Actually, to be fair, Keith Richards is pretty normal in this picture (especially when compared with some of the stuff we’ll be seeing in the coming days), and his creativity and musical talent is never on better display in any of the Stones’ movies as when he casually teases out the memorable “Sympathy” guitar solo in between takes. But consider this: In this film, and all the movies from this period, he’s credited as “Keith Richard” without the “s.” Though no definitive reason has ever been given for the temporary name change (Keith changed it back in the mid-’70s), it is said that it might have been done for cosmetic purposes. One website even claims that Stones management thought Richard-without-the-“s” was “more hip.” It was also exactly one letter easier to spell.

Aftermath: “Sympathy for the Devil” was made during a particularly political period of Godard’s career, and the half of the movie that dives into those waters is now almost entirely divorced from whatever contemporary relevance it had. At times, it’s difficult to tell what was intended sincerely and what was intended satirically; the “Eve Democracy” segment, with its absurd interview questions (“Does marijuana do something to the sense of time?” “On LSD, do you begin to die a little?” “Is it urgent to replace the word culture with another one?”) and one-word responses (“Yes” to all of the above) strikes me as particularly ambiguous. Today, the effect of all this weirdness is to cast the Rolling Stones in an unusually serious light. While a generation seems to be collectively losing their minds outside the studio, inside its soundproof walls, the band goes about its business with a pragmatic attitude.

It’s possible to read the movie as a comparison between different segments of the youth movement who might hold up the Rolling Stones (as a call to arms for Satan on the one hand, or as an example of white oppressors stealing black culture on the other) and the band itself, which doesn’t seem to be concerned with anything except making a catchy pop tune. As mentioned earlier, even though he’s recording the creation of a single song from start to finish, Godard doesn’t seem terribly concerned with fully charting its progress, leaving out the seemingly crucial period where its tempo congeals into the state we’d eventually come to know it as, and refusing to include a finished version of the track. He’s ultimately more interested in the act of creation than what ultimately gets created — an idea he echoes in the way he repeatedly cuts away from his graffiti artists before they can complete their tags.

[Photos: “Sympathy for the Devil,” New Line Cinema, 1970]

Part 2: “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus”
Part 3: “Gimme Shelter”

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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