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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”



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.