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


Wes Anderson in non-annoying film shock


(c) American Empirical Pictures


I haven’t seen every film in the canon of American director Wes Anderson, but from the ones I have seen – The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited – I can firmly say I’m not a fan of his work.  I know there are critics out there who rave about him, but I’ve found his films annoyingly twee and whimsical, offering quirks and eccentricities aplenty but offering very little of substance.  (The Darjeeling Limited, set in a version of India that only ever existed in the imaginations of Hollywood scriptwriters and of psychedelically hallucinating hippy backpackers, is probably the biggest culprit.)


Anderson, I suspect, would like to establish himself as the Robert Altman of the 21st century.  Like Altman did, he imbues his films with his own leftfield sensibilities and he likes to draw on his own repertoire of actors and actresses – with Altman it was people like Shelley Duvall, Michael Murphy, Sally Kellerman, Elliot Gould and Keith Carradine, with Anderson it’s Bill Murray, Adrien Brophy, Anjelica Huston, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson.  But whereas I thought Altman deserved all the praise he got for movies like M*A*S*H*, McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts, Anderson’s films – or at least, the trio that I’ve seen – have just left me cold.


Until now, at least.  For I have just been to see Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and thought it rather glorious.  Finally, I can understand why some critics make such a fuss about him.


What makes the difference this time?  Well, it helps that the setting of The Grand Budapest Hotel is so obviously a fairy-tale one.  Most of the action takes place in a grand and luxurious old hotel in the mountains of some Ruritanian Never-Never-Land in the Europe of the 1930s.  Even the Nazis, when they show up, aren’t really Nazis – they’re scowly uniformed fellows with coal-scuttle helmets and an angular symbol that just happens to look a bit like a swastika.  That there’s barely a realistic bone in the film’s body suits Anderson’s style perfectly.  Adding to the fairy-tale aura is the framing technique used for the film’s narrative – it isn’t just told as a flashback, but as a flashback within another flashback.  If this makes the film sound convoluted, don’t worry – it isn’t.  (For a really flashback-heavy movie, incidentally, you should check out Michael Curtiz’s 1944 production with Humphrey Bogart, Passage to Marseilles, which at one point contains a flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback-within-a-flashback.)


The other factor that helps The Grand Budapest Hotel and gives its plot some genuine ballast – as opposed to in other Anderson films, which have felt so frivolous to me they’ve seemed ready to float away – is a central performance by Ralph Fiennes.  Playing the hotel’s concierge, Fiennes is in nearly every scene and he’s masterful.  Velvet-toned, unflappable and oozing charm from his every pore, he’s as suave and facilitating as Jeeves-the-butler in P.G. Wodehouse’s stories.  He exists, like the hotel itself, to satisfy every wish and whim of his aristocratic and well-heeled guests, a mission he carries out with a single-minded zeal – indeed, so seriously does he take his hotel duties that we see him at a lectern in the staff’s quarters each evening, sermonising with a similar seriousness at his colleagues about their duties.  And like anyone in a smart uniform working in the reception area of a fancy hotel, he’s probably more snobbish than even the wealthiest clients who strut in through the doors – I’ve worked in hotels, including two in the Swiss Alps, and I know what the culture is like.


On the other hand, though, Fiennes has an eye slyly open for the main chance.  With the whims of the rich and elderly female guests, he’s probably more accommodating than decency would permit; and it’s no surprise that when one of them passes away, a venerable widow (played by Tilda Swinton) whom he’s ‘serviced’ during her past 17 seasons of visiting the hotel, she leaves him in her will a fabulously expensive painting.  Fiennes promptly squirrels off this painting (leaving in its place what looks like one of those pieces of frilly-laced porn painted by notorious turn-of-the-century Austrian artist Franz Von Bayros), much to the disgust of Swinton’s offspring.  Led by a Dick Dastardly-moustached Adrien Brophy, they frame Fiennes for their mother’s murder but, of course, no prison can hold Fiennes for long – not when Fiennes’ wheedling charm works as well on the hardened prisoners (who include a bald-headed, tattooed and nearly unrecognisable Harvey Keitel) as it does on the aristocrats who frequent the Grand Budapest.


It’s really no more than a caper movie, although Fiennes and Anderson carry things off with such aplomb that you don’t quite realise that until a few hours later, after the film’s comfortable, warm, muzzy glow has faded a little.  Anderson sets up and orchestrates each scene with an artistry that’s worthy of Peter Greenaway and he takes a Terry Gilliam-esque delight in showing the art-deco and slightly steampunk-like mechanisms that provide the setting with its infrastructure – the trams, cable cars, funicular railways, elevators and dumb waiters.  It’s fun too to note the various cinematic references made in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  There’s a bit of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, even of Peter Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  There might even be homage paid to David Cronenberg’s The Fly, because there’s a brief but gruesome scene where Jeff Goldblum says goodbye – again – to some of his bodily appendages.  But maybe I’m reading too much into it.


So well done, Wes – you’ve finally made a film that I liked.  In fact, I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel so much that I don’t mind you making your next five movies as smug and annoying as your old ones.