There’s isn’t an I’m Not There for the Rolling Stones. Jagger hasn’t gotten his own Across the Universe or Velvet Goldmine. The band has made concert films like Gimme Shelter and Shine a Light; Jagger takes some acting gigs here and there; and doomed guitarist Brian Jones was the subject of the obscure biopic, Stoned. In general, however, the Stones’ story—despite the copious sex, drugs, rock, riots, sex and drugs—has yet to translate to the big screen. Perhaps it’s because they’re still going strong after nearly 50 years. They don’t need a biopic—at least not yet.
That only makes the use of the music in film all the more noteworthy. Stones songs pop up usually as a nod to nostalgia, exploiting our shared points of rock-historical reference, but a handful of directors have signaled new or at the very least very deep interpretations of the Stones’ music, whether it’s an instantly recognizable hit or a deep-album cut. Here are some of the best, presented in chronological order: six directors, six films, and six Stones songs that provide commentary on the story or in some cases even tell the story, all while expanding our perception of the Stones themselves.
Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse Now is not only the best Vietnam movie, but also the strangest. Coppola portrays the war as surreal, nonsensical, existentially baffling, as Willard (Martin Sheen) faces one dreamlike interlude after another during his upriver journey to assassinate Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando). But the Stones’ biggest hit plays during a moment of almost banal recreation, which is made all the more precious for the horrors it interrupts. As a portable radio blasts American military radio, the crew dance, sing, drop acid, and—most bizarrely—waterski. Only Willard himself sits out the song, suggesting that he has lost his humanity and wholly become his mission. And Jagger’s cries of frustration echo Coppola’s creative turmoil, as he famously had no idea how to end the film.
Lawrence Kasdan, The Big Chill (1983)
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
It’s easy to scoff at Kasdan’s ode to old friends getting older, but it’s worth remembering that The Big Chill codified nostalgia in such a way as to distinguish Boomers from their parents (and make them the scourge of Gen X). The film opens with a lengthy funeral scene for a character we’ve never met; the gravity of the situation feels unwarranted, as Kevin Kline does a bad job of breaking down at the podium. But Kasdan punctuates it with a wry joke: JoBeth Williams rises from the pew to play the deceased’s favorite song, which turns out to be not some solemn hymn, but the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Immediately the cast break into private smiles of recognition, suggesting a shared bond between them all. The song plays out as they greet each other in the church parking lot, ride to the cemetery, and lay their friend to rest. It’s a long setpiece, but especially with Jagger’s hymn to resignation and revelry, it plays out like a self-contained short story.
Stanley Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket (1987)
“Paint It, Black”
What is it with the Stones and war movies? The Stones don’t pop up until the end credits, but “Paint It, Black” brings the film to a particularly bleak end. The marines march out of the city of Hue singing the theme to the Mickey Mouse Club, a fairly obvious jab at the Disney-fication of the war. But as the fires die down and the screen runs black, Keith Richards lays into that guitar intro and the Stones kick up a ruckus. It’s a jarring musical transition between two well-known songs placed in a new setting. Kubrick always maintained close control over every aspect of his films, especially soundtrack. Pop hits both romantic (“Goin’ to the Chapel”) and rambunctious (“ Woolly Bully”) contrast the setting in all its ruin and horror, all those bombed buildings and piles of debris. But it’s “Paint It, Black” that provides both final commentary and something like an epilogue. The gradual fade implies that Joker, who has spent the entire movie trying to comprehend what he loftily calls “the duality of man,” meets his end somewhere in Vietnam, but not before the war has darkened his soul: As Jagger says for him, “I look inside myself and see my heart is black.”
Martin Scorsese, Goodfellas (1990)
Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece doubles as a primer on pop history, covering the vogues for pop crooners, girl groups, rock bands, and supergroups. It’s the music that portrays the passage of time, even more than the sets, the suits, and the makeup. The scene with “Layla” is the most famous as well as the most intricate, but “Gimme Shelter”—only one of several Stones songs on the soundtrack—scores a pivotal scene. As Keith Richards strikes those famously splintered opening chords, a playing card stirs a pile of white powder. Cocaine: our antihero Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) has started dealing it in Queens. For two decades, he and his crew have made a fortune by stealing, extorting, gambling, racketeering, and worse, but in the 1970s, drugs represented a new temptation as well as a new danger. “Gimme Shelter” sums up this shift in organized crime perfectly: “War… it’s just a shot away.”
Wes Anderson, Rushmore
“I Am Waiting”
Wes Anderson has used the Stones to score several scenes in his movies, choosing less well-known tracks to convey the romance of youth (“2000 Man” in Bottle Rocket) as well as the immensity of grief (“Ruby Tuesday” in The Royal Tenenbaums). But it’s this autumnal scene in his second feature film Rushmore that stands out, as each of the three main characters spends an overcast Thanksgiving alone. The combination of sound and image is gracefully understated: Max Fischer walks out of his house and jumps the fence into a cemetery, where he will visit his mother’s grave, and Jagger sings the chorus of the band’s most poignant ballad. There’s no nostalgia here, no shared sense of recognition over this relatively obscure album cut. Instead, “I Am Waiting” sounds exactly like the kind of song that Max would pick himself, if only to demonstrate that he would pick a relatively obscure album cut. It’s a touching moment in the movie, but perhaps even more impressive is how Anderson uses the Stones in a new way—to reveal the intense melancholy of adolescence, when all you can do is act out your desperation.
David O. Russell, The Fighter
“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”
At first it appears to be just another training montage, as boxer Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his recently rehabbed older brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) prepare for a big match. Everything is on the line: Dicky’s sobriety, Mickey’s chances at a title, the unity of their family, the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts. At first the song sounds obvious: Can you hear Mickey knocking, demanding his chance at glory? But watch the two actors, the heroically reserved Wahlberg and the relatively antic Bale (who seems to be playing the character as Gob Bluth). The way they interact onscreen in what should be a clichéd montage is understated and ultimately affecting—two brothers fighting their way back into each others’ lives, asking for second chances after grievous mistakes. Just as the scene lends new depth to the song, the Stones make a routine training sequence seem anything but.