“Crossfire Hurricane,” Brett Morgen’s new documentary celebrating 50 years of The Rolling Stones (9 p.m., HBO), opens in intentionally disorienting fashion.
First we’re told that Morgen was able to interview all the surviving members of the band (including short-time lead guitarist Mick Taylor and retired bassist Bill Wyman, in addition to stalwarts Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood), but that he wasn’t allowed to film the interview, so we hear disembodied voices (Jagger’s voice instantly recognizable, the others much less so) over a black screen.
We then cut to a Dick Cavett interview with Jagger in 1972, at the height of the band’s powers, Mick keenly aware of his abilities and his stardom, and follow that with a snippet of an interview from earlier in the band’s career where he admits he’s not so confident. Then we get black and white footage of the band backstage in the ’70s, Jagger appearing to casually snort cocaine off a switchblade, before the band launches into a rocking rendition of “Street Fightin’ Man,” then hops on a private plane in an era where the cockpit was still filled with cigarette smoke.
It’s more than 10 minutes into the film before “Crossfire Hurricane” turns into a more traditional documentary, with the various Stones providing voiceover narration to explain the group’s origins, their appeal, and how the many highs and lows of their career came about. Until then, it’s just an impressionistic take on what it was like to be in the world’s biggest rock ‘n roll band at a moment when such a thing had great cultural and even political meaning.
Based on some of Morgen’s other films (including his ESPN documentary about the day of the O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase), I wouldn’t be surprised if he had wanted to make the entirety of “Crossfire Hurricane” in the style of those first 10 minutes before realizing the history of the band(*) is too enormous to cover in anything but a traditional format.
(*) And the film, like most Stones biographies, really only deals with the first 20 years, from the band’s formation through around “Tattoo You” in 1981. The ensuing 30 years have been much less dramatic (and few of the albums memorable), but there’s definitely a story in the idea of an outlaw band settling into middle age and simply continuing, even as their brand becomes a kind of living, breathing greatest hits compilation. But as usual, we focus on the glory years, which means Wood – who’s been with the band for 37 of its 50 years – is introduced when there’s only 15 minutes to go in the two-hour film.
And because the band’s history has been so well-documented elsewhere – Mick and Keith don’t talk all the time, but they’re also not recluses (Keith published an autobiography a couple of years ago) – “Crossfire Hurricane” isn’t a particularly revelatory work. (If you want, for instance, to really get a sense of the apocalyptic atmosphere of their performance at Altamont, you’re better off renting “Gimme Shelter.”) But as a primer on the band’s most memorable songs and moments, it works.
Though Morgen goes more conventional as the film moves along, he still lets footage play out at length if it’s good, and almost all of it is. We get glimpses of one of the band’s earliest songwriting sessions, and as the Stones in present day compare their audience of angry young men to the lovesick girls who squealed over The Beatles, we get extended glimpses of the riots that would go on at mid-’60s Stones shows.
Mick and Keith in particular are as candid as usual about how they were playing roles, with Mick clarifying that “There’s a difference between acting and not enjoying it,” and Keith admitting that his famous drug arrest at Redlands “Basically gave me a license: it’s Jesse James time. I mean, the cops turned me into a criminal. That’s when I started carrying a shooter in America.”
And the original members don’t mince words in discussing founding member Brian Jones’ final days in the band before he gave in totally to drugs, and later drowned in questionable circumstances. Jagger recalls Jones sitting on the floor of the recording studio to play on the recording of “No Expectations,” and it was beautiful, “And that was the last thing I remember him doing that was Brian – or the Brian that could contribute something.”
Morgen chooses just the right songs, and performances of them, to accompany the band’s different ’60s and ’70s periods (the dueling guitars of Keith and Mick Taylor on “Honkytonk Woman” justifies Keith’s suggestion that “Two guitars together, if you get it right, it can be like an orchestra”), and I’ve spent the days since watching the film deep sea diving through all the Stones albums in my collection.
Because the Stones are still (mostly) together, there’s not an obvious arc the way there is if you’re doing a film on The Beatles or Nirvana. The Stones came, they saw, they conquered, and though there were tragedies and departures along the way, mostly they’ve just stayed, spending the last 30 years living off the legend of the first 20. But if “Crossfire Hurricane” doesn’t offer much that’s new, or tell a spellbinding story along the way, it still vividly captures how they became legends in the first place.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org