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February 8, 2009

Steel Reels

Art Transcends the Ages at Rolling Stones Film Fest

By By Josh Eiserike

In the 1960s, young people lamented the "generation gap," but four decades later the distance between the artists of that generation and the one currently learning the cinematic arts was clearly bridged during the school's two-day film festival, The Rolling Stones On Film, held February 6 and 7 at Norris Theatre.

The venerable British rock band has been involved with scores of films, some of the best of which, including Gimme Shelter (1970) and Shine A Light (2008), screened at Norris. The two-day festival, attended by students, faculty and Stones fans young and old, also included a panel discussion before a reception and the final film.

"The Rolling Stones speak to the youth of their generation," first-year production graduate student David McCracken said of the band's cross-generational appeal. "We want the same things our parents did at our age."

Erica McNamara, a senior print journalism major, came with friends for the reception and Scorsese film.

"Their Satanic Majesties Request is my all-time favorite album," McNamara, who also listens to modern bands like Radiohead, said. "I love the lyrics." 

McCracken, who saw every film in the festival, said that the Rolling Stones' lyrics deal with issues of authority and their place in the world, something every young person can relate to. But he also said that watching the documentaries inspired him to pursue different approaches to his own filmmaking at the School of Cinematic Arts.

"I didn't like Performance, it's not my type," McCracken said. "It seemed to be focused more on big ideas than narrative. But in a strange way it made me want to experiment more with non-linear filmmaking in one of my projects this semester."

Much of the panel discussion was dedicated to Gimme Shelter, the documentary that followed the Rolling Stones on their 1969 American tour. This film is notorious because it culminates with the Altamont Free Concert in San Francisco, where the biker gang Hell's Angels rioted and killed people, all of which was captured on camera. 

Left to right: Production Senior Lecturer Bill Yahraus (cameraman at Altamount concert in San Francisco which was the basis for the film Gimme Shelter); director Penelope Spheeris. Moderator and Critical Studies Professor David James; Assistant Professor Musicology, Thornton School, Joanna Demers; Assistant Professor, University of California, Riverside, James Tobias.
Perhaps the most interesting fact revealed at the panel was that Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger was aware of the SCA film festival. To hear panelist Penelope Spheeris tell it, Jagger was both relieved and apologetic that the School of Cinematic Arts couldn't get a copy of the unreleased documentary film Cocksucker Blues. Spheeris met the Rolling Stones lead singer at a recent party and told him about the film festival. According to some Rolling Stones fans at the festival, this was the only major omission in a line up of films that included documentary, feature and experimental films from throughout the band's career.

Jagger was a no-show at the festival, but Spheeris, whose directorial credits include Wayne's World and the Los Angeles punk documentary The Decline Of Western Civilization, was one of four panelists invited to discuss the music and
Rolling Stones music provided by Los Angeles rock band Calamity Magnet.
the films of the popular British rock band at the festival. After the panel, guests had the opportunity to enjoy food, drinks and Rolling Stones music, provided by Los Angeles rock band Calamity Magnet, at Town & Gown prior to the final film.

The audience was a healthy mix of older fans, members of the SCA community and others from the university, building in numbers to a packed house for the final presentation of the festival, Martin Scorsese’s 2008 concert film Shine A Light.

"The Stones are remarkable amongst musical groups in terms of their longevity and their importance and in terms of their relationship to film," Critical Studies Professor David James, who organized the festival, said. "These have been exemplary instances in the ways that film has been used to extend the rock 'n' roll concert in both creating a document of it and also enabling people who couldn't go to the concert see the Stones perform."

However, some of the festivalgoers have seen the band perform. Between Paul Body, Robert Sherman and Michael Hartman of Los Angeles, there are over 120 years of stones fanaticism. The three friends, who have followed the band since the 1960s, heard about the event on a Rolling Stones fan Web site. They have seen all the films before.

"It's great seeing them on the big screen, it's been a while," Body said. "They're the ultimate party band. It's a good time."

In addition to Gimme Shelter and Shine A Light, films screened included Performance (1970), Sympathy For The Devil (1968), The T.A.M.I. Show (1964) and Invocation Of My Demon Brother (1969). Panelists included USC Thornton School of Music Assistant Professor of Musicology Joanna Demers, Spheeris, University of California Riverside Assistant Professor James Tobias and Gimme Shelter camera operator and SCA production faculty member Bill Yahraus, with James as moderator. The event was sponsored by SCA and Visions and Voices: The USC Arts and Humanities Initiative.

"I think it's a great history lesson, I think it's a great lesson in rock 'n' roll," Spheeris said. "The Stones are genius promoters and marketers. Whether that can be pointed at Mick, for him to have this kind of longevity, is kind of a quirk of nature… I think (Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards) both sold their soul to the devil, because how else would you get that?"