-By Michael “McBeardo” McPadden
Gimme Shelter, the masterpiece made by documentarians Albert and David Maysles (along with Charlotte Zwerin), turns 45 this year. The film chronicles the horrific, paradigm-shifting free music festival mounted by the Rolling Stones at California’s Altamont Speedway during which a fan was stabbed to death—on camera.
To date, Gimme Shelter stands as the single greatest film involving the Rolling Stones. While the band never starred together in a narrative feature akin to the Beatles’ A Hard Days Night (the closest they came was almost playing the Droogs in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange), Mick and Keith and the boys have, in fact, long been staples of the cinema, in a variety of manners.
The following list is by no means complete, as numerous Stones have turned up in numerous motion pictures in numerous combinations over the course of the group’s half-century of making musical history. It’s just an eye-popping, ear-ringing, mind-blowing run-through of our seventeen favorite opportunities to get Stoned most powerfully at the movies.
The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)
The “T.A.M.I.” of The T.A.M.I. Show stands for The Teen Age Music International. The movie, shot on videotape and transferred to film to create an effect deemed “Electronovision,” is a raw blast of youth culture in volcanic ascent—arising from the freewheeling beach party era of the early ’60s and poised to explode open-wide into the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll revolution that defined the decade’s back half.
The movie documents a multi-artist concert, headlined by the Rolling Stones. Surf dup Jan and Dean charmingly act as hosts while riding skateboards around the set. Watch for great performances by the Supremes, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Lesley Gore, Chuck Berry, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and, above all, James Brown and His Famous Flames. For much of the world, The T.A.M.I. Show provided the first full look at his unparalleled power in concert.
Charged with having to follow the Godfather of Soul, the Stones electrically hold their own, driving the girls in the audience to full-blown screaming-and-fainting insanity with a set that includes “Night Train,” “Time Is on My Side,” and “It’s All Over Now.”
Charlie Is My Darling (1966)
The Rolling Stones tour Ireland during April 1965 in the affable black-and-white documentary, Charlie Is My Darling. Following the band on various car trips, train rides, and hotel room hang-outs between gigs in Belfast and Dublin, the movie offers a rare opportunity to watch the World’s Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band during their final moments of being just another gang of British Invasion kids having the time of their lives.
Check out the impromptu bursts into song, for example, when Mick and Keith goof around with a couple of Beatles numbers, or when manager Andrew Loog Oldham plays piano while Mick does a hilarious Elvis Presley impression. It is priceless.
The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus (1968)
The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus is a legendary TV special mounted with huge effort and at great cost by the group. It’s an extravaganza featuring the Stones and their favorite contemporaries performing music under a big top, in between traditional three-ring acts such as jugglers, tumblers, and trapeze artists. The band immediately disowned the project upon completion, and the show never made it to the air.
Rumor has long held that the Stones feared that special guests the Who blew them off screen with their rave-up version of “A Quick One While He’s Away.” Maybe they do, maybe they don’t—it’s been a fun debate among fans of both groups ever since Rock and Roll Circus leaked out as a bootleg midnight movie in the ’70s and endlessly traded VHS tape throughout the ’80s and early ’90s.
So easy was it to see a grainy, beat-up version of Rock and Roll Circus, in fact, that the Stones relented in 1996 and finally released an official home video edition. The wait proved worth it.
In addition to the Who and an absolutely wild climactic set by the Stones that features a particularly unhinged “Sympathy for the Devil,” Rock and Roll Circus showcases Jethro Tull with Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi on guitar, and the supergroup Dirty Mack (a parody of the name Fleetwood Mac) tearing up the Beatles “Yer Blues.” The Dirty Mack consists of John Lennon on vocals, Keith Richards on bass, Eric Clapton on guitar, and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience on drums. That, for sure, is something to see.
Sympathy for the Devil (1968)
Avant-garde French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard films the Stones recording the title song in Sympathy for the Devil, and the unedited footage of the group in a sound studio is invigorating and compelling—up to a point. Godard spices up the recording footage by intercutting it with a bombardment of late 1960s counterculture interviews and images, and that, too, is intriguing and even inspiring—again, up to a point.
The end result is a jumbled mess of Mick Jagger singing certain lines over and over, Brian Jones looking as though maybe he’d already started his fatal drowning process, and Keith and Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts being cool for what seems like a very, very long time.
Jolting viewers awake (in theory) are sudden outbursts that include the Black Panthers kidnapping and killing a group of white women, a female figure called Eve Democracy insufficiently answering questions, outraged Marxist diatribes, and shots of comic books, Nazi pamphlets, and men’s magazines in a semi-comic subplot about Maoists being held hostage in a book shop.
As an artifact of a very specific time and place, Sympathy for the Devil is a highly valuable time capsule. As a Rolling Stones movie, Sympathy for the Devil is a highly valuable experience if that happens to be the one and only Stones song you really like.
Popcorn: An Audio/Visual Rock Thing (1969)
A psychedelic sensory overload created for the college cinema and midnight movie circuit, the Stones headline Popcorn: An Audio/Visual Rock Thing, supported by Jimi Hendrix, the Animals, Joe Cocker, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, and Otis Redding.
Frantic, acid-blasted proto-music-video sound and fury splatters all over each segment, which includes a Stones performance, a backstage Mick Jagger interview, a visit with Arthur Lee of Love, and a swinging fashion show starring ’60s supermodel Twiggy. Peace signs, toy robots, surfers hanging ten, and napalm decimating jungles in Vietnam figure headily into the movie’s mix.
The Stones in the Park (1969)
Two days after the drowning death of founding member Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones played a free concert in in London’s Hyde Park. The Stones in the Park is a no-frills documentation of that show.
Visibly not all together there, the Stones debut Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor on guitar and they play a shaky set that includes “Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” The crowd of a quarter-million or so is highly entertaining to watch.
Gimme Shelter (1970)
Hailed by many as the greatest rock-doc ever made, Gimme Shelter is also a time machine, a cautionary warning, an experience in total immersion filmmaking, and a real-life horror film. It is impossible to look away from, and then just as impossible to ever shake off.
Gimme Shelter chronicles the end of 1960s flower power and the dawn of the dark and decadent 1970s. That moment commences with the Rolling Stones announcing that their 1969 tour would conclude on December 6 with a free outdoor music festival at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. It plays out, on film, during the course of the most atrocious event, to that point, in rock-and-roll history.
Hit by rough winds and icy temperatures, the poorly planned Altamont show goes from grim to terrifying in short order, as frozen hippies piled on top of one another for sheer survival purposes and the event’s only security and crowd control came via the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club, whose members were paid in beer and LSD. That was the worst of all possible ideas.
Throughout the miserable, day-long slog, the Angels beat audience members with pool cues, knock out Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin when he jumped off the stage to help a fan who was being abused, and ultimately stab to death of 18-year-old concertgoer Meredith Hunter. Gimme Shelter’s cameras capture that fatal moment of impact to devastating effect.
A masterwork from end-to-end, Gimme Shelter places the viewer in the cold hell of Altamont with a power above and beyond any other mere motion picture. When the Stones finally take the stage in the pitch-black wee hours, the violence explodes full-scale, with Mick begging the “babies-babies-babies” in the crowd to keep cool while Angels leader Sonny Barger eyeballs the singer with a hatred so ferocious it will bruise your eyeballs.
One of Gimme Shelter’s few bleakly comic moments features the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia getting off a helicopter to prepare for his band’s set as co-headliners. Upon being told that the Angels were “beatin’ on the musicians,” Captain Trips simply deadpans, “Bummer.” Then he gets back on the helicopter and flies off to safety. No sane person can possibly blame him.
Ned Kelly (1970)
Mick Jagger starts as the title figure, a larger-than-life 19th century Australian outlaw whose life had previously served as the subject of cinema’s first-ever feature-length film, 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang. Even as recently as 2003, Heath Ledger took on the part in his own version of Ned Kelly.
Teamed with super-hot ’60s director Tony Richardson (Tom Jones, The Loved One), Jagger gives it a good go as the Land Down Under’s legendary bank-robber. Regardless, the movie was plagued by troubles from the start, including intense protests from Australian actors protesting the importation of Brit Jagger, and the final film never lives up to the sum of its parts. The flick flopped worldwide, and Mick moved on to better things.
Filmmakers Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell, who would later develop their own individual followings, teamed up for their debut effort, surreal, pansexual gangster art-flick freak-out, Performance.
Toughguy actor James Fox stars as Chas, a gangster on the lam who holes up with Mick Jagger as Turner, a rock star living in hedonistic bliss with Lucy (Michelle Breton) and Pherber (Anita Pallenberg, who was then Keith Richards’ real-life girlfriend). In time, the two men exchange personalities, all four participants blend together sexually, and, come the end, no one is sure who is who.
Performance is not an easy film, but it is one beloved by a fiercely devoted cult. It also generated Jagger’s first solo hit, the mighty “Memo From Turner.”
C—sucker Blues (1972)
C—cksucker Blues immediately lived up to its title by instantly getting banned worldwide. Unlike the video boxes for say, Faces of Death or Cannibal Holocaust that claim the movies were “Banned in 37 Countries!,” the injunction against C—cksucker Blues is a bona fide legal ruling that decrees the movie cannot be shown anywhere, at any time, unless its director Robert Frank is physically in the room—and no more than four times in any one given year.
Understandably, then, the rarely screened documentary became an instant obsession to Stones’ fans and cult film enthusiasts alike. Shot cinema-verite style, meaning that the cameras were set up and just caught whatever they could, C—cksucker Blues follows the band’s misadventures during their 1972 Exile on Main Street tour. The slow-going action is awash in narcotic consumption and groupie nudity, which is often combined, sometimes to harrowing effect.
Ironically, C—cksucker Blues is more shocking now in today’s politically correct climate than at the time of its release, when Deep Throat brought hardcore sex to neighborhood theaters, and John Waters got midnight movie audiences howling over the comical atrocities of Pink Flamingoes.
Bootleg copies of C—cksucker Blues are out there. See it for yourself.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones (1973)
After shelving C—cksucker Blues, the band released Ladies and Gentleman, the Rolling Stones, a straightforward concert film that captures the group at high impact during their 1972 Exile on Main Street Tour.
Booked as a “roadshow” event, Ladies and Gentleman, the Rolling Stones rolled through cities one at a time, screening only at big theaters that were equipped with a dynamic sound system assembled just for the movie. Fans loved it then, and we still do.
The movie captures a monstrous fifteen-song set that kicks off with “Brown Sugar,” “Bitch,” and “Gimme Shelter,” then goes out with the triple-bang of “Rip This Joint,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” and “Street Fighting Man.” Every song in between is a classic .
Oddly akin to C—cksucker Blues (and, previously, Rock and Roll Circus) actually seeing Ladies and Gentleman, the Rolling Stones proved a challenge following the film’s theatrical run. It was only ever released on VHS in Australia. The band corrected that curious misstep with a full 2010 theatrical re-release followed by a deluxe Blu-ray package.
The Wild Life (1984)
Blink and you might miss him, but Rolling Stones bassist Ron Wood cameos as “Refrigerator Raider” during a party scene in The Wild Life, screen writer Cameron Crowe’s pseudo-sequel to his masterpiece, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As Chris Penn’s neo-Spicoli character Tom Drake says repeatedly throughout the movie, “It’s casual!”
Running Out of Luck (1987)
The 1980s begat a stream of VHS-released “video albums.” Running Out of Luck is Mick Jagger’s contribution to this deservedly forgotten (if campily enjoyable) art form.
Tied in to Jagger’s solo LP Primitive Cool, Luck is a comically disastrous feature length “musical comedy adventure” directed by the otherwise great Julien Temple. It’s essentially 90 minutes of strung-together music videos with Mick playing a parody of himself on a South American adventure.
Amidst lush Latin landscape, Mick parties with transvestites, gets forced to sexually service a female banana plantation overseer (Norma Bengalli), and then takes up with Rae Dawn Chong as a steamy spitfire. Later, Jagger goes to jail where he contends with a tarantula and sings about it. Also look for Dennis Hopper and Jerry Hall.
An ego trip gone ’80s bonkers, Running Out of Luck is not “good,” per se, but it’s a riot. Not for nothing has no one involved ever pushed for it to be released on DVD.
Mick Jagger and Anthony Hopkins team up as heavies who take on Emilio Estevez and David Johansen as the good guys in Freejack, an instantly dated slice of sci-fi “cyberpunk” that bombed big time upon release, but which has since garnered something of its own dedicated following.
Estevez plays a racecar driver who gets snatched from death the split second before a crash by Jagger, who’s a mercenary from the future. It’s revealed to be a process called “bonejacking” in which the rich can extend their lives by occupying the bodies of those who would have died under normal circumstances. Sound confusing? It is.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)
In 2003’s original blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp unmistakably based his Captain Jack Sparrow on Rolling Stones guitarist and indestructible rock-and-roll anti-hero Keith Richards.
For the movie’s second sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Richards repaid the tribute by appearing in the movie as Captain Teague, Jack Sparrow’s father. It’s fun to see Depp play off his idol and to witness Richards have such a ball in full swashbuckler gear. Keef even returned for a cameo in the 2011 follow-up, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Rolling Stones: Shine a Light (2008)
Martin Scorsese’s documentary/concert film Rolling Stones: Shine a Light, was actually the second Stones feature to premiere in IMAX, following 1991’s appropriately titled, At the Max. However, Shine a Light bests it predecessor by also being in high-definition 3D.
Scorsese captures a powerhouse 2006 performance at New York’s Beacon Theater from the Stones’ A Bigger Bang Tour, showcasing nineteen songs. Buddy Guy comes out to power-pump the band’s cover of the Muddy Waters chestnut, “Champagne and Reefer,” while Christina Aguilera wails to great effect on “Live With Me.”
Crossfire Hurricane (2012)
Documentarian Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) expertly rounds up Rolling Stones history for the group’s 50th anniversary in Crossfire Hurricane, a terrific nonfiction overview made for HBO but good enough to be released in theaters first.
Utilizing vintage footage, much of it unseen, Crossfire Hurricane plays like a rock-and-roll victory lap—and no band of outlaws and survivors is more deserving of one. It’s a great snapshot of the World’s Greatest at their half-century mark, rocking onward into the future.
Mike “McBeardo” McPadden is the author of Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big Scream Films Ever! (Bazillion Points).