Roeg one

 

From www.filmreference.com

 

Bugger.  Just when I’ve finished penning a tribute to one genius who’s gone and died on us – see my previous entry on Stan Lee – another genius goes and dies too and I find myself in obituary-writing mode yet again.  I’m referring to the legendary director and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, who passed away on November 23rd at the age of 90.

 

I’m tempted to say that Roeg, with his fondness for hitting filmgoers with random bits of narrative and elegiac but fragmented imagery that, like the pieces of a puzzle, they then had to figure out and stick together themselves, was a rare thing by today’s cinematic standards – a filmmaker who made movies for grown-up, thinking people.  But actually I was hardly into my teens, with my thought processes still maturing, when I experienced his most celebrated films, i.e. those from a purple patch spanning the 1970s from Performance (1970) to Bad Timing (1980).

 

Films like Walkabout (1971) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) had started to turn up on TV while I went through my pimply adolescence; and I had the privilege of seeing Don’t Look Now (1973) and Performance on a big screen, courtesy of Peebles High School Film Club (which showed films in the school assembly hall every Monday evening) at the ages of 14 and 16 respectively.  Seeing two 1970s Nicholas Roeg movies uncut at those ages, and on a decent-sized screen.  Wow, those were the days.

 

And what did I make of them?  Well, I found them bafflingly weird, but when I discussed them at school the next day with my mates – as we invariably discussed them – we were able to put forward a theory or two about what’d been going on.  And despite being bewildered by them, we usually enjoyed them and felt that we’d seen something special.  Mind you, being teenagers, we also liked Roeg’s movies because they contained such vital ingredients as violence, sex, drugs and (via the personages of David Bowie and Mick Jagger) rock ‘n’ roll.

 

© British Lion Films

 

Even Don’t Look Now, which my 14-year-old self didn’t initially like because it seemed too disconcertingly removed from how I thought a horror movie should be, remained with me because though I didn’t enjoy the sum of its parts, several of the parts themselves were impossible to forget.  These included the opening sequence, both incredibly painful and creepy, in which Donald Sutherland loses his young daughter to an accident while the tragedy is foreshadowed by an incident involving blood-like red ink leaking across a photographic slide from a strange figure wearing the same red coat that the doomed girl is wearing; the sex scene between Sutherland and Julie Christie (playing his wife and the dead girl’s mother) which, while explicit, offers the viewer no titillation because it’s obviously the act of two damaged people trying desperately to achieve closure on the past and get on with their lives again; the scenes where Sutherland pursues a mysterious little figure in red – his daughter’s spirit? – through the labyrinthine, decaying streets and waterways of Venice; and of course, that ending.  I should say that I’ve seen Don’t Look Now several times since then and now think it’s a masterpiece.

 

Conventional wisdom has it that Roeg lost his mojo somewhat in the 1980s.  But when you consider the reviews (or in some cases reappraisals) that his 1980s films like Eureka (1983), Insignificance (1985), Castaway (1986), Track 29 (1988) and The Witches (1990) have received, they sound like they’d make credible additions to any director’s CV.  I’ve hardly seen any of them, which is a shame since they’re packed with actors and actresses whom I like, such as Rutger Hauer, Joe Pesci, Gene Hackman, Tony Curtis, Ollie Reed, Amanda Donohoe, Gary Oldman, Angelica Huston and Bill Paterson.

 

And let’s not forget that before he became a director, Roeg was a distinguished cinematographer on such movies as Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death (1964), Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967).  In fact, Masque, with Roeg’s camera shifting eerily from yellow to purple to white and finally to red as it follows evil Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) through the different-coloured rooms of his plague-besieged castle – in Edgar Allan Poe’s original 1842 short story, there were seven rooms, but obviously Corman’s budget fell three short of that – is one of my all-time favourite movies just to look at.

 

By way of a musical tribute to the late, great Nicolas Roeg, here’s the 1985 song E=MC2 by Mick Jones’s Big Audio Dynamite.  Jones was clearly a fan of Roeg, since the song manages to fit in references to no less than five of his movies.  And here also is Mick Jagger at the end of Performance serenading some hallucinating Cockney gangsters (“It’s Mad Cyril!”) with Memo from Turner, surely the best ever Rolling Stones song that isn’t technically a Rolling Stones song.

 

 

Cinematically stoned

 

© Omni Zoetrope / United Artists

 

In my previous post I wrote about the late Anita Pallenberg and her finest cinematic moment, the dark and twisted 1968 crime / rock movie Performance.  This also starred Mick Jagger, fellow Rolling Stone and best buddy of Pallenberg’s then lover, Keith Richards.

 

Performance’s cocktail of rock stars, gangsters, drugs, decadence and debauchery was seen as representative of the culture surrounding the Stones in the late 1960s; and this, along with Pallenberg and Jagger’s participation, surely means it can be classed as a ‘Rolling Stones movie’.  Which begs the questions, “Are there other Rolling Stones movies?  And if so, what?”

 

After all, there’s been plenty of Beatles movies over the years: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968), Let It Be (1970), I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), The Birth of the Beatles (1979), Give my Regards to Broad Street (1984), The Hours and Times (1991), Backbeat (1994), Two of Us (2000), even The Rutles (1978).  But what of the Liverpudlian moptops’ less wholesome London rivals?  What’s been their contribution to cinema?

 

On the face of it, there isn’t a lot.  That is, if you don’t count the various documentaries made about them like Charlie is my Darling (1966), Jean Luc Godard’s oddball Sympathy for the Devil (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), a chronicle of their 1969 American tour that ended bloodily with Hells Angels-inspired carnage at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival.   And if you don’t count their many concert movies like The Stones in the Park (1969), Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982), Julien Temple’s The Stones at the Max (1991) (the first feature-length movie to be filmed in IMAX – because what you really want to see is a 100-feet-tall close-up of Keith Richards’ face, right?), The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1996) (plug your ears for the bit with Yoko Ono) and the Martin Scorsese-directed Shine a Light (2008), which provided the gruesome spectacle of leathery 60-something Jagger duetting with 20-something pop-moppet Christina Aguilera and prowling around her like a camp velociraptor.

 

There’s been little effort to film key events in the history of the Rolling Stones.  Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is the little-known Stoned (2005), about the possible circumstances of Brian Jones’s death.  And as for movies featuring Stones-members as actors, well, there’s just a couple of items with Mick Jagger – epics such as Ned Kelly (1970) and Freejack (1992).  Ouch and double-ouch.

 

© Walt Disney Productions / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

 

Actually, you could make a case for the Pirates of the Caribbean series being Rolling Stones films as their star Johnny Depp famously based the voice, mannerisms and swagger of his Captain Jack Sparrow character on Keith Richards.  I thought Depp-playing-Keith-playing-a-pirate was a rib-tickling gimmick that elevated the first Pirates of the Caribbean instalment, back in 2003, from being a middling film to being an entertaining one.  Alas, Captain Jack / Johnny / Keith has gradually lost his novelty value as the sequels have become ever-more convoluted, repetitious and tedious.  For the third in the franchise, At World’s End (2007), the filmmakers had the bright idea of bringing in the real Keith Richards to cameo as Captain Jack’s pirate dad.  You can see his cameo here on Youtube, which saves you the ordeal of sitting through the whole poxy movie waiting for him to show up.

 

However, there’s one thing you can say about the Rolling Stones and celluloid.  In the right film, blasting over the soundtrack at the right moment, a Stones song can help create a splendid musical, visual and dramatic alchemy, turning a good cinematic scene into one that’s truly awesome.  Here are my all-time favourite uses of Rolling Stones songs in the movies.

 

© Taplin-Perry-Scorsese Productions / Warner Bros

 

Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Mean Streets (1973)

Wow.  Martin Scorsese really likes the Rolling Stones.  Not only has he made a concert movie about them, the above-mentioned Shine a Light, but he’s used their music in umpteen films: Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006) and the one that first put him on the map, 1973’s Mean Streets.  Even today, more than 40 years later, the scene in Mean Streets where a young Robert De Niro comes swaggering through a bar, in slow motion, towards a pensive Harvey Keitel, while Jagger hollers in the background about being “born in a cross-fire hurricane”, is a great synthesis of rock ‘n’ roll music and rock ‘n’ roll cinema.  Indeed, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a fitting accompaniment for the arrival in popular consciousness of De Niro, who’d spend the rest of the 20th century showing Hollywood how to do proper acting.  (The 21st century, containing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Little Fockers (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011) and Dirty Grandpa (2016), is a different matter.)

 

Satisfaction in Apocalypse Now (1979)

The Stones’ early, primordial and still potent stomper Satisfaction gets a brief but memorable airing in Francis Ford Coppola’s baroque Vietnam War masterpiece, playing on the radio while Captain Martin Sheen and his not-exactly-fighting-fit crew go cruising up the Nùng River in search of Marlon Brando.  Cue some funky on-deck dance moves by a frighteningly young-looking Laurence Fishburne and some funny / cringeworthy water-skiing moves by Sam Bottoms that knock various Vietnamese people out of their fishing boats.

 

Sympathy for the Devil in Alien Nation (1988)

Graham Baker’s sci-fi / cop movie Alien Nation isn’t very good.  Its premise of an alien community getting stranded on earth and having to integrate as best as they can with the curmudgeonly human natives was handled much better in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009).  But I do like a woozy, hypnotic scene in it where alien-loathing cop James Caan enters a sleazy alien bar while a lady-alien performs an erotic dance to the strains of Sympathy for the Devil.  Not the original Stones song, but a correspondingly woozy, hypnotic cover-version of it by the great Jane’s Addiction.  I can’t find a film-clip of the scene, but here’s the Jane’s Addiction cover.

 

© Légende Entreprises / Universal Pictures

 

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? in Casino (1995)

While Martin Scorsese serenades Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel with Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Mean Streets, he employs the 1971 Stones song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? for another of his regulars, Joe Pesci, in Casino.  Remarkably, Scorsese plays all seven minutes of the Santana-esque Can’t You… as an accompaniment to a lengthy sequence showing how Pesci’s Casino character Nicky Santoro gets established in Las Vegas.  Predictably, the sequence has Pesci doing what Pesci usually does in Scorsese movies: being a psychotic shit, barking orders at hoodlum sidekicks twice his size, eating in restaurants, ingratiating himself with fellow Mafiosi, being a psychotic shit, cursing and swearing, getting a blow-job, being a psychotic shit, talking about food, knocking off jewellery stores, acting the loving family man with his non-criminal relatives… and being a psychotic shit.

 

Sympathy for the Devil in Interview with the Vampire (1995)

It’s Sympathy for the Devil again.  And again, this isn’t the Rolling Stones original but a cover version, this time by Guns n’ Roses.  It’s as ramshackle, shonky and (for me) enjoyable as Guns n’ Roses’ other covers, which include ones of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Wings’ Live and Let Die.  In Interview with the Vampire, Sympathy… kicks in during the final scene when, to nobody’s great surprise, the supposedly-vanquished vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) reappears and takes a bite out of reporter Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater).

 

© Strike Entertainment / Universal Pictures

 

Ruby Tuesday in Children of Men (2006)

Wistful Stones ballad Ruby Tuesday features briefly on the soundtrack of Alfonso Cuarón’s gruellingly pessimistic science-fiction thriller Children of Men.  It’s another cover, sung by Franco Battiato.  We hear it during one of the movie’s calmer moments when Theo (Clive Owen) is visiting his mate Jasper (Michael Caine), whose home provides a small pocket of sanity amid the unfolding dystopian grimness.  Amusingly, Caine, well known in real life for being a right-wing old grump given to moaning about his tax-bill, here plays a left-wing old hippy given to smoking super-strong pot.

 

© Plan B Entertainment / Warner Bros

 

Gimme Shelter in The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese loves the Rolling Stones and he loves their apocalyptic 1969 number Gimme Shelter in particular.  By my count he’s used it in three movies: Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed.  It’s best deployed at the beginning of The Departed, rumbling in the background while gangland thug Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) expounds his philosophy.  “I don’t want to be a part of my environment,” he intones, imbuing his words with that leery, languid menace that only Nicholson is capable of.  “I want my environment to be a part of me.”  Strangely, in Scorsese’s Shine a Light two years later, Gimme Shelter was one of the songs the Stones didn’t perform on stage.  So Marty missed a trick there.

 

Street Fighting Man in Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

Director Wes Anderson also sticks Rolling Stones songs into his movies, but so far I haven’t mentioned him because I find most of his work insufferably smug and pretentious.  (Play with Fire figures prominently in 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, an Anderson movie so twee it’s the cinematic equivalent of being force-fed with chocolate cake-mix.)  However, I like the scene in his stop-motion-animation adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox where, to the sound of the rabblerousing late-1960s Stones anthem Street Fighting Man, Farmers Bean, Boggis and Bunce use three diggers to tear up the den of the titular Mr Fox; forcing the den’s inhabitants to frantically dig an escape-route.  As Keith Richards might say: “We’re the Stones – you dig?”

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Farewell, Black Queen

 

© Dino de Laurentiis / Paramount Pictures

 

A word that frequently came up in tributes to the Italian model and actress Anita Pallenberg, who passed away last week, was ‘muse’ – i.e. muse to the Rolling Stones, a couple of whose members she was involved with during the 1960s and 1970s.  She started off as girlfriend to Brian Jones, was Keith Richards’ partner for more than a decade and was rumoured to have had a fling with Mick Jagger, though this rumour she always denied.

 

It was no doubt frustrating for Pallenberg to have her life defined almost entirely by the Rolling Stones, even though she was only associated with them for 15 years.  I read somewhere that she abandoned a project to write an autobiography because the publisher kept demanding that she put more in it about the Stones.

 

Still, if you’re a Stones fan, as I am, you should be toasting Pallenberg’s memory just now because she was with them during a period when they were truly on fire and deserving of the moniker ‘the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’ – from the Beggar’s Banquet album (1968), through Let It Bleed (1969) and Sticky Fingers (1971), to Exile on Main Street (1972) – and her influence surely played a part in the band’s greatness at the time.  It’s said that once Beggar’s Banquet was in the can, Jagger took her advice and remixed the tracks; and she provided backing vocals for the album’s most famous and notorious song, Sympathy for the Devil.  The Stones’ then bodyguard and drugs procurer Tony Sanchez claimed that Pallenberg was into the occult and would carry around garlic and holy water to ward off evil, and I like to think her esoteric interests contributed to the spooky vibe that Sympathy is famous for.

 

Years later, when her relationship with Keith Richards was on its last legs, she at least provided the inspiration for Richards’ song All About You, one of the few good things on that duff Stones album Emotional Rescue (1980).

 

As an actress, Pallenberg’s filmography included the Marco Ferreri-directed Dillinger is Dead (1967) and the Marlon Brando film Candy (1968), but for sheer iconic-ness it’s her role as the villainous Black Queen in Roger Vadim’s sex-comedy-sci-fi-fantasy movie Barbarella (1968) that she’ll be remembered for.  Sporting a piratical eye-patch, Pallenberg doesn’t really have to do much acting in Barbarella, since her voice is dubbed by veteran actress Joan Greenwood.  But she looks great.  I have to say that for me she’s the only reason to watch Barbarella, as I’ve always found it annoyingly smug and leery and – worst of all – totally not funny.  Then again, I don’t think there’s any ‘swinging 1960s’ comedy movies that I like.  Yip, Help! (1965), What’s New Pussycat? (1965), Casino Royale (1967), The Magic Christian (1969), even The Italian Job (1969) – I hate them all.

 

© Goodtime Enterprises / Warner Bros

 

Pallenberg also appears, of course, in Performance (1968) – the famous and psychedelically weird crime-rock movie co-directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, which tells the story of an on-the-run gangster (James Fox) who holes up in a mansion belonging to a burnt-out rock star (Mick Jagger) and gets involved in some mind-bendingly druggy goings-on.  Pallenberg plays one of the mansion’s female inhabitants – she memorably welcomes Fox when he rings the doorbell by saying over the intercom, “Please leave a message after the beep.  Beep, beep, BEEP!”  Performance neatly captures the dark, dangerous aura that was popularly associated with the Stones at the time and it did the film’s scary reputation no harm that afterwards Fox underwent a ‘crisis’, dropped out of acting for a decade-and-a-half and became an evangelical Christian.  When I first saw the film as an impressionable teenager, it certainly blew my socks off.

 

Talking of socks…  Keith Richards had and still has a deep-rooted aversion to the film, thanks to the sexual shenanigans that Pallenberg supposedly got up to with Jagger during filming.  He believed these shenanigans were orchestrated by Donald Cammell, presumably as a way of getting Pallenberg and Jagger further ‘in character’.  In his autobiography Life, Richards describes Cammell as “the most destructive little turd I have ever met.”  But actually, if you’re to believe Life, old Keith didn’t have that much to complain about.  He claims that he got his revenge on Mick Jagger during the filming of Performance by nipping around to the house of Jagger’s then girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, and getting up to some ‘hot and sweaty’ hi-jinks with her.  Supposedly, while they were in the middle of this, Jagger unexpectedly arrived home – which led to Richards having to shin his way down the drainpipe from Faithfull’s bedroom window.  He was in such a hurry that he forgot to put his socks back on and left them lying on the floor.  However, Jagger, who was obviously a bit of a slob, didn’t think there was anything amiss about a pair of rogue socks littering Faithfull’s bedroom and suspected nothing.

 

Thanks to Richards’ loathing of Performance, one Jagger-Richards song that’s never been played at Rolling Stones gigs and is unlikely to ever be played at future ones is Memo from Turner, which soundtracks a particularly strange sequence at the movie’s climax.  On the Performance recording of the song, Jagger is the only Stone involved, doing vocal duties, while Ry Cooder plays slide-guitar (wonderfully) and Randy Newman plays piano.  It’s a shame that we’ll never hear a live Stones version of it as it’s a belter.  (I’m also partial to this cover of it by forgotten 1980s retro-rockers Diesel Park West.)

 

Then again, I guess the omission of Memo from Turner from Stones concert set-lists is another example of the lasting influence that the late Anita Pallenberg had over a band who, for a few heady years at least, really were the best in the world.