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Still Rolling: 40 Years of the Rolling Stones on Film – “The Rock and Roll Circus”

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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_rockandrollcircus.jpgThe Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus
Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg

The Film: In order to promote their new album “Beggars Banquet” (whose recording we watched yesterday), the Stones put on a televised concert in December of 1968 featuring themselves and a couple of friends, all set inside a big circus tent and featuring real circus performers like a trapeze artist and a fire eater. At least, that was the intention; the Stones were ultimately so displeased with the finished film that they didn’t release it for almost 30 years.

The Rolling Stones Are: Mick Jagger on vocals, Keith Richards on lead guitar, Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass, and, for the last time publicly, Brian Jones on maracas, rhythm and slide guitars. Looking a bit unsteady on his feet and meekly strumming his guitar, Jones is a striking and even unsettling physical contrast to the vivacious Jagger, who deploys his standard routine of preening and strutting (with the admittedly novel twist of peeling off his shirt at the coda of “Sympathy for the Devil” to reveal a large tattoo of Satan plastered across his chest). As in “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jones is totally inaudible (save for some slide work on “No Expectations”) and he is physically isolated from the rest of the band; in this case, cloistered all the way to the extreme right of the stage while the rest of the band stands together on stage left. It looks like he’s got a disease and the rest of the Stones are afraid of catching it. Jones’ performance and those from other musicians at the Circus who would go on to die young lends the film what Janet Maslin quite accurately described in her 1996 New York Times review as an “accidental poignancy.”

With Special Guest Stars: The Stones’ set is preceded by performances from a young Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal, Marianne Faithfull and a supergroup called The Dirty Mac consisting of John Lennon on vocals, Eric Clapton on lead guitar, Keith Richards on bass, and Yoko Ono on shrieks and burlap sack. But best of all are The Who, who perform a turbo-charged rendition of “A Quick One While He’s Away.” On his DVD commentary track, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg acknowledges the rumor that the film was long kept out of circulation because the Stones were unhappy with their performance specifically as it compared to this unforgettable appearance by The Who. Though he doesn’t confirm that’s the reason it was ultimately kept from the public, he doesn’t exactly deny it either.

Best Performances: The Stones do pale in the face of the thunderous might of The Who, in part because their performance was delivered at the end of a marathon 15-hour shoot. Even the indefatigable Jagger looks visibly groggy as the Stones kick off their portion of the show with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But once the adrenaline starts flowing, they make out just fine, particularly on the then-unreleased “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” with particularly emphatic vocals from Jagger (and tons of flirting with the camera). Speaking of which…

You Can’t Always Get What You Want: According to Lindsay-Hogg, the Stones wanted “a band which was not yet famous” to kick off the “Rock and Roll Circus” and ultimately selected Jethro Tull to fill the spot. But before you give the band too much credit for their foresight and prescience, consider this — in picking Jethro Tull, they turned down another young band, because, according to Lindsay-Hogg, their sound struck Jagger as “very guitary.” That runner-up? Led Zeppelin. Oops.

Keith Richards is Weird: All of the Stones wear goofy, circus-themed outfits, but Keith’s getup is from a circus on Mars or something. He wears a top hat and jacket with no shirt (though, strangely, he does have a shirt collar), along with an eye patch, perhaps an indication of the impending pirate costumes that would help define his look as well as Johnny Depp’s in a certain later Disney movie. Best of all? He smokes an enormous cigar as he encourages the audience to “dig” The Who. Keith Richards is weird. Then again, the worst outfit of the night belongs to Eric Clapton, rocking a grandma sweater so absurdly polychromatic it makes Bill Cosby’s wardrobe in the 1980s look comparatively subdued.

Aftermath: An opening quotation from author David Dalton says that the “Rock-and-Roll Circus” “in many ways [captures] the spontaneity, aspirations and communal spirit of the entire era.” Fair enough; it also captures some of its pervasive druggy weirdness, for both good and bad. It’s the sort of devil-may-care creative energy that might bring together talented musicians like John Lennon and Eric Clapton, only to have them play second fiddle to a woman wailing incoherently at the top of her lungs. Plus, even when the performances sparkle, the film itself is a bit of a mess; lots of Jethro Tull’s performance is overlit and out of focus, and great sections of the other supporting acts are marred by giant blobs of gunk floating on the edges of the camera lens. Whether you consider these markings of rock and roll authenticity or hazy, disinterested sloppiness may depend on your perspective on this particular endeavor; from my seat, it’s sort of an interesting piece of history, a couple of great performances, and not much of a concert film. The Stones could, and would, do better.

[Photo: “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” ABKCO, 1996]

Part 1: “Sympathy for the Devil”
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.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com and the IFC app.

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