Lead Guitars and Movie Stars: The Cinema of The Rolling Stones

the rolling stones

The Rolling Stones have broken so many records over their astonishing 50-plus year career; raised so many bars and left so many lesser bands eating their dust that there isn’t much left to say about them.

One aspect of their tenancy as The Greatest Rock and Roll Band In The World™ that’s often overlooked though is their contribution to cinema. Keen admirers of presentation and spectacle from the very beginning, it was only a matter of time before they tried cinema on for size. Sometimes it fitted just dandy, but not quite always.

They were pioneers in both the concert movie and rock video sub-genres, roping in movie directors like Hal Ashby (Let’s Spend The Night Together) and David Fincher (the Love is Strong video) to harness a vital big screen vibe. Mick Jagger’s enthusiasm for movies has seen him develop into a genuine film producer with credits like Enigma,

The Women and James Brown bio-pic Get On Up under his belt. Jagger has also chanced his arm as an actor, with mixed results – his portrayal of Ned Kelly in 1970 featured crimes against the Irish accent that went unequalled until Far and Away in 1992), and he isn’t the only Stone to roll before the cameras.

Their back catalogue, an unmatched gold mine of rock majesty, has been pilfered by dozens of movie directors, who have used their music to give their work extra lustre. And so while time is still on our side, let’s get our rocks off and salute The Rolling Stones: movie icons. Satisfaction guaranteed.


1. Gimme Shelter (1970)

Gimme Shelter

This would have been an astonishing concert movie in any case, capturing with gusto The Rolling Stones’ legendary 1969 tour of America that was immortalised on “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!” – for many, the greatest live album ever made.

Director Albert Maysles was also there to film the band recording tracks from one of their most revered albums, Sticky Fingers. That alone would be the purest catnip for Stones fans, but on the final date of the tour – December 6th – Masyles also filmed the 1960s with all its collective idealism and hopes for a new generation based on peace, love and community, come to a murderous and violent end.

The Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco started off badly and descended into hell one circle at a time until finally, a young black man was stabbed to death at the foot of the stage by a pack of wild Hell’s Angels – all caught on Maysles’s camera and watched within the movie in disbelief by Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger.

Rock journalism thrives upon tortured metaphors, the grander the better so the standard line that ‘Altamont Was The Death of The Sixties Dream’ might just be hyperbole unchecked. It’s hard to arrive at a different conclusion though, after watching the eerie final silent images of dazed and bloodied teenagers scrabbling away, over the dunes into a new world where sunny old Woodstock and all it represented feels like a very long time ago.


2. Performance (1970)

Performance (1970)

Many pop stars had successfully transferred their talents to the cinema screen throughout the 1960s. Spurred on by Elvis’s secondary career, Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard, The Dave Clark Five and, of course, The Beatles all had huge hits at the movies. Warner Bros, therefore were licking their lips in anticipation when they signed Mick Jagger up to headline what they hoped would be a zany comic caper involving gangsters and pop stars.

What they didn’t anticipate was their prized possession bathing with naked heroin addicts and singing songs about ‘the great grey man whose daughter licks policemen’s buttons clean.’

The results sent shock waves through the whole studio and had executive producers’ wives vomiting at preview screenings. Shot in 1968 (Jagger sports the same raven-haired post Beggar’s Banquet look visible in the Rock and Roll Circus TV special), but recut and delayed until 1970, Performance finally emerged as one of the most extraordinary British movies of the 1960s.

Co-directed by the bohemian Donald Cammell and the visionary genius Nicolas Roeg, the film uses the duality of its authorship as an ice-pick to violently chisel and sculpt a portrait of a clash of cultures opposed, as a violent man is torn apart from within and reshaped into something new and unexpected.

Reflecting the mystifying allure of both the UK rock scene and the East End gangster underworld of the Krays and the Richardsons, Performance exists in the space where the two sets meet. Its unflinching depiction of London gangsters was hugely influential on films like Get Carter and Villain.

James Fox gives one of the great transformative performances of the past 50 years, but Jagger quietly holds his own: on display as the rock star he already was, and not the actor he wasn’t.


3. Cocksucker Blues (1972)

Cocksucker Blues (1972)

Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues – or CS Blues, if you’re reading this aloud to your children – was for years a big missing piece in the Rolling Stones filmography.

A stark depiction of their 1972 American tour, the backstage scenes of drug taking and debauchery were deemed by the Stones themselves to be a bit much even for them and they had the film banned, releasing the uncontroversial concert film, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones instead.

In the misty, pre-YouTube past, CS Blues carried with it a healthy cachet of pirate mystique. In a baffling court ruling, the film was only allowed to be screened four times a year, and only with Frank (who created the monochrome photo-patchwork album cover for their masterpiece Exile on Main St.) in attendance.

Those lucky few who managed to steal a viewing would most likely have been surprised at just how bored the band seem to be with all the criminal decadence going on around them.


4. Mean Streets (1973)

‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ Single (1968)

Original rock music had only recently been used as non-diegetic soundtracks, most startlingly in Easy Rider (1969) which did away with any score at all in favour of brand new tracks by Jimi Hendrix, The Band, The Electric Prunes and Steppenwolf.

Martin Scorsese has spoken often of the constant jukebox of music played outside his apartment when he was a teenager and it affected the way he put his soundtracks together forever. He didn’t just edit favourite songs in for the sake of nostalgia. He used them as deliberately and as memorably as a composer.

His deployment of The Rolling Stones classic ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ is a defining moment in cinema that signalled the end of an era and the start of something raw and new. Scorsese tracks his camera down a seedy New York bar, bathed in Satanic red towards the lonely figure of Charlie Cappa (Harvey Keitel) as Keith Richard’s flick-fingered riff signals the arrival of Charlie’s superhumanly reckless best friend Johnny Boy (Robert de Niro) with a hot chick on each arm.

No exposition required; no Henry Hill-style narration letting us know all about Johnny’s reputation. The music says everything: clearly for this guy, life really is a gas, gas, gas. This wasn’t just Johnny Boy arriving at the bar, it was Robert De Niro arriving into our lives like a crossfire hurricane. Pure opera.


5. The Big Chill (1983)

‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ From Let It Bleed (1969)

In High Fidelity, You Can’t Always Get What You Want was memorably discounted by Jack Black from ‘Barry’s Top 5 Songs About Death List’ – “Immediate disqualification because of its involvement with The Big Chill.” That was a little hard on Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut.

As well as sporting one of the great ensemble casts of the 1980s (Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, and Kevin Costner as ‘Actor on Cutting Room Floor’), The Big Chill was one of the first movies to view the 1960s not as recent, still relevant history, but as pure nostalgia.

The (very successful) soundtrack was a greatest hits compilation of the sounds of the late 1960s – largely Motown and R&B – and was a deliberate play to the affections of the Summer of Love teenagers, now thirtysomethings with jobs, kids, mortgages and dampened expectations.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want, played at the funeral that reunites the old friends for a weekend of truths and dares, pretty much summed up their lives thus far. Ironically, in the same year that Kasdan was recalibrating their music as vintage nostalgia, the Stones themselves were desperately courting the new MTV crowd with synths, drum machines and expensive videos on their new (ultimately unloved) album, Undercover.


6. Live At The Max (1990)

Live At The Max (1990)

3-D, it seems is here to stay, but to a huge section of the cinema-going public, it is still just a pointless, screen-darkening, headache-inducing means for the studios to yank even more money out of us.

Even digital film, with the much-loathed Star Wars prequels as its standard bearers, has come in for flack from pure filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and especially Christopher Nolan. For him, and increasingly anyone who has experienced it, IMAX is THE format to enjoy cinema at its most intense and immersive. The Rolling Stones already knew that 25 years ago.

Shot by esteemed rock video director Julien Temple (who had filmed the incendiary and much-banned video for 1983’s Undercover of The Night), Live At The Max was the first concert movie to be shot in this new, immense format. Leaving you with nowhere to turn, the film places you onstage with the boys as they strut their way through the career-rejuvenating Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tour (recorded and released on the 1991 album Flashpoint).

For a time, the only place to watch Live At The Max was at movie museums in California and in Bradford in Yorkshire but hopefully, the recent resurgence in IMAX cinemas will mean that the Steel Wheels can spin again. A rare performance of 2000 Light Years From Home from the under-appreciated Their Satanic Majesties Request album is a highlight among all the usual big-hitters.