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Still Rolling: 40 Years of the Rolling Stones on Film – “Gimme Shelter”

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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.

04102008_gimmershelter1.jpgGimme Shelter (1970)
Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin

The Film: The Rolling Stones watch the events of their recent American tour as they play out before them on a flatbed editing machine. Though their return to the States was filled with plenty of highlights, including a triumphant series of concerts at Madison Square Garden and a successful recording session at Muscle Shoals Studios, all that really seems to matter is the disastrous result of their free concert held outside of San Francisco at the Altamont Speedway. Intended as a companion event to the recent Woodstock Festival, the day was regularly interrupted by outbursts of bad vibes and outright violence, culminating in the death of Meredith Hunter, an African-American teenager in front of the stage during the Stones’ set, forever marking the show as one of the unofficial signposts on the road to the end of the 1960s.

The Rolling Stones Are: Mick Jagger on vocals, Keith Richards on guitar, Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass, and, for the first time on screen, Mick Taylor on guitar. When founding member Brian Jones couldn’t get a visa for their upcoming American tour, the rest of the Stones fired him in the summer of 1969. (Jones died less than a month after his sacking.) On the recommendation of blues musician John Mayall, Taylor got the job, and though he doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue in “Gimme Shelter,” his presence is felt in all the musical numbers, which are grittier and tighter than any of the performances in “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus.”

With Special Guest Stars: Opening for the Stones on the tour were Ike and Tina Turner and B.B. King. The latter never appears in “Gimme Shelter,” but the former give a memorable rendition “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” in which Tina lovingly and ever-so-suggestively caresses the microphone throughout. Watching the luckiest mic stand in history, Albert Maysles notes on the film’s DVD commentary track that “this was a different period of time… when sexuality was more direct.” Boy, I’ll say. At Altamont itself, the lengthy bill included The Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane. The Grateful Dead were scheduled to appear but backed out after learning of the chaos and violence; the Maysles’ cameras captures their arrival at the venue and the looks of concern on their faces as they learn of the injury to one of the members of Jefferson Airplane.

Best Performance: About 40 minutes into the film, the Stones play “Honky Tonk Woman” and just before the chorus, the first of a string of fans bursts onto the stage and tries to tackle Jagger. Some might just be groupies; others are a bit more intimidating looking; the dude in the dark green jacket sure wasn’t after Mick just to give him a kiss. Nevertheless, Jagger barely misses a beat, and seconds after he’s nearly been dragged to the ground, he’s wiggling his hips and pogoing to the words “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind!” The incidents are altogether terrifying, and seem to portend the even more aggressive audience outbursts that await the Stones at Altamont, but Jagger laps up every second of the attention. After the song wraps, he works the audience up some more. “I think I busted a button on my trousers! I hope they don’t fall down!” he announces with a tinge of faux naughtiness. “You don’t want my trousers to fall down now do you?” Cue the girls’ squeals.

04102008_gimmershelter2.jpgYou Can’t Always Get What You Want: Pretty much every second of the footage of the Stones’ set from Altamont is remarkable, but there are only two numbers: “Sympathy For the Devil” and “Under My Thumb,” the track the band was playing when Meredith Hunter brandished a gun for reasons unknown and was stabbed to death (in self-defense, according to a jury) by several Hells Angels. The Stones played more; who knows what sorts of fascinating moments the Maysles captured but didn’t share with us.

Keith Richards is Weird: There’s a famous scene in “Gimme Shelter” where the Stones are listening to “Wild Horses” at Muscle Shoals, and the camera captures Richards sitting on a couch, head back, eyes closed, singing along more intensely than any fan every could, tapping his feet along to the rhythm in garish snakeskin boots. But that one moment overshadows a cornucopia of Richards’s antics; earlier in the same scene, he produces some kind of food label from his product and announces “Cousin Minnie says, ‘How delicious!'”; checking into the local hotel a short time later, Richards unlocks his door with the line, “Is my local groupie in?”; during the “Love in Vain” sequence, Richards is lying on the floor between the wall and the audio mixer. Still, credit where credit’s due: when the shit starts to hit the fan at Altamont, it’s Richards who makes the most passionate call for sanity when he points his finger directly at some of the scuffling and announces “Either those cats cool it, or we don’t play!” With that, order is restored, if only for a moment.

Aftermath: This is the third film in this informal series, but only the first time we see the Stones in something resembling an interview. In “Sympathy for the Devil,” they provide the soundtrack to a political tableau. In “Rock and Roll Circus,” they dress like buffoons while singing songs praising the working man and his hard life. In “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles convinced the band to allow them to record their reactions as they sit and watch the rough cut. Not surprisingly, they say little. It’s clear that the band is very comfortable performing as The Rolling Stones, but not terribly comfortable being the Rolling Stones.

Ironies abound: While the Stones’ last movie was a playfully staged carnival, “Gimme Shelter” documented a real circus. The last time Jagger appeared singing “Sympathy For the Devil,” he painted a big picture of Satan on his chest; this time when he sings it, something truly evil is about to happen. And yet, as Godfrey Cheshire noted in a New York Press article that’s included with the DVD, the images from Altamont are all the more alluring “for being so damned and damning.” For all the genuine horror contained in the footage — per Jagger’s request, you watch Hunter’s stabbing twice, first as it plays in real time and then again in slow motion on the Steenbeck — it’s also sort of mesmerizing, and as good an ad for the Maysles’ style of direct documentary cinema as there could be. As the ship sinks and the Stones keep right on playing, the Maysles’ cameras, primarily perched behind the band and shooting out into the crowd, record all these strange, vivid characters. Every time I watch these scenes, I’m enthralled by the girl in the front with long brown hair mockingly flashing peace signs until she realizes Jagger is looking at her, whereupon she self-consciously tosses her hair and starts dancing to the music, and the random guy who spends half of “Under My Thumb” standing next to Mick Jagger, tripping on acid, or the blond girl a few yards away who sits silently crying and nodding. There’s a prominent shot of Hunter in his mint green suit before his stabbing, playing with something in his pocket (the gun perhaps?) and another of Hells Angels leader, Sonny Barger, sizing up Mick Jagger while he sings “Sympathy for the Devil.”

“Gimme Shelter” shows the power of the camera and also its impotence; the Maysles managed to record this murder in the middle of this massive scuffle, but they couldn’t stop it. It does the same for rock and roll: All these tens of thousands of people come to Altamont to hear the Rolling Stones, but their most important plea falls on deaf ears.

[Photos: “Gimme Shelter,” Cinema 5 Distributing, 1970]

Part 1: “Sympathy for the Devil”
Part 2: “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus”



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.