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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”



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.