Start Me Up

This SIFF Short Film Parodies Windows 95's Viral Launch Day Event

Remember that ridiculous video of Bill Gates dancing? It inspired The Launch, which makes its world premiere in Seattle.

By Allecia Vermillion May 9, 2023

Comedian Alyssa Limperis captures Bill Gates's a cool sort of way.

On August 24, 1995, Microsoft unleashed its Windows 95 operating system with a global party—a laser light show in Germany, the software company’s logo glowing atop the Empire State Building. At its Redmond headquarters, chairman Bill Gates, CEO Steve Ballmer, and the rest of the executive team took the stage to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.” It was the first time the band allowed one of their songs to be part of an advertising campaign.

Onstage, this group of white men in polos and 1990s-issued pleated pants let loose,  jamming to this anthem with, um, passion. They feign drum solos. They clap in rhythm. Ballmer cavorts with big Chris Farley energy.

We didn’t know in that moment that this would be the rough draft of a new world where tech launches are watershed events (usually with more Steve Jobs and less dancing) and tech executives hold as much sway on society as any elected official or famous athlete. We certainly didn’t know that a clip of these guys dancing around would go viral nearly 40 years later.

Or that it would inspire a short film that makes its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival this year.

The Launch imagines the moments leading up to those polo-shirted execs rocking out onstage. It’s part of SIFF’s Blurred Dimensions block of shorts, which debuts Sunday, May 14.

Filmmaker KK Apple is a New York–based comedian who came up through the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. Like so many others, she first saw the dancing video when it made its viral rounds. “It has I don’t know how many millions of views and maybe half of those are me watching,” she says. At first, it amused her. Then it became something more.

That big Steve Ballmer energy. (Filmmaker KK Apple is the Microsoft exec in the green polo shirt.)

There’s a moment when the footage zooms in on Bill Gates, then the world’s richest man, clapping and gently bouncing in his khaki-colored polo and trademark glasses. He’s smiling for the audience, but his expression transmits so many other emotions.

“Something about that really struck me as he’s having some kind of dark night of the soul happening,” says Apple. She assembled a cast of all female or nonbinary comedians to portray the Microsoft executives.

Apple dove deep into Windows 95 lore for research, but the scenes in The Launch come entirely from her imagination (let’s just pretend the moment when two execs confirm one another’s polos are tucked in tight before taking the stage is based on actual events). What’s real here—besides the pagers firmly affixed to dorky belts—is the simmering pressure that comes from spending millions of dollars to produce a transformative operating system. One that’s behind schedule and still riddled with issues. Then another round of millions to shape an upbeat story of Windows 95 to a globe’s worth of users back in the era of dial-up modems and Clippy.

Unlike Microsoft, Apple didn’t have $3 million to spend on Rolling Stones music rights. She worked with music company Upright T-Rex to compose a reasonable dupe that, more or less, clears that creative hurdle. Especially if you’re old enough to have all those “Start Me Up” Windows 95 TV ads firmly implanted in your brain.

The Launch feels like an extended comedy sketch. Like the video that inspired it, it comes off silly at first, then unrolls some deeper commentary. Despite significant efforts, Apple wasn’t able to identify the other men who took the stage alongside Gates and Ballmer. She’s hoping a Seattle audience can help bring those names to light.

After SIFF, The Launch will make the rounds among various film festivals. Eventually it will stream on the internet that helped inspire it. Again, it’s a short piece, just nine minutes. But the moment it recreates was a precursor to—or pre-cursed, depending on your view—the cursor-driven reality we know today.

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