The Rolling Stones’ 50-year existence is hardly an underchronicled phenomenon. Although there are fewer feature-length films dedicated to the band than there are, say, greatest-hits anthologies, the glut is real, so the news that the band tasked The Kid Stays in the Picture codirector Brett Morgen with a made-to-order golden-jubilee testimonial could be greeted with more rolled eyes than wagging tongues.
But dismiss Crossfire Hurricane, which premiered in New York earlier this week and debuts on HBO tonight, at your own peril. There is enough never-before-seen footage to floor the most devout Keefophile and a concise enough narrative to render this, for a casual fan, the definitive documentary on the band. (Provided you don’t care about anything that happened to them after 1981.)
1. Legends Are Better Seen than Heard
Though he conducted 80 hours of interviews with all four surviving Rolling Stones (as well as the two living ex-Stones, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman) to form the spine of this story, Morgen wants you to know, before the opening credits even unfurl, that cameras were not present for them. This is done presumably in large part so the audience is not distracted by the looming specter of mortality and the ravages of age, but it’s a crucial gambit. There’s plenty to feast eyes on here as far as rare, raw footage, onstage and off, of a band creating and cementing its legend; something as square as a talking-head interview would only mean less time for that. And it’s the early-days stuff, some of which comes from the recent Charlie Is My Darling, that’s most relevatory, as English kids are seen losing their bloody minds en masse; the five young band members, chased by screaming girls and mushmouthed, scolding journalists alike, could probably count themselves among them. It’s only during the end-credit performance of “All Down the Line” from Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light, filmed in New York in 2006, that there’s even a hint of craggliness.
2. Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘N’ Roll: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad
Barely five minutes into Crossfire Hurricane and there’s Dick Cavett, crowded into a backstage dressing room, asking Jagger about a tray of white powder being passed around. (“Probably just salt,” deadpans the singer.) Nothing is whitewashed as far as the band’s misadventures with contraband are concerned, and Keith Richards’ gleeful outlaw-talk will sound familiar to anyone who read his autobiography, Life. Particularly striking are the shots of the heroin-addled Brian Jones’ filthy, shaking fingers, unable to do much with a guitar, just before he was fired from the band. As far as performances go, early footage of the band in their nascent covers-only phase doing songs like “I Just Want to Make Love to You” as audiences learn to riot in real time, is maybe more enlightening than, say, their still-legendary post-Exile on Main Street 1972 tour. But conspicuously absent is much about the band’s knotty relationships, either with one another or, really, with any of a mind-boggling number of women; a giant flower arrangement at Jones’ funeral bearing a card that says “Mick and Marianne” is the closest you’ll hear about Ms. Faithfull, and Anita Pallenberg’s name is glimpsed only in a passing news clipping. Sure, it’s all about the music, except no band has had a longer or more colorful extracurricular existence than this band, and to deny even a sliver of that gossip fodder can’t help but feel like a miss. The most lurid footage comes toward the end of a furious montage set to “Midnight Rambler,” primarily via the notorious midflight footage from Robert Frank’s too-hot-for-television-or-anywhere-else Cocksucker Blues. Case study #1,428 of why you don’t give your star final cut; it’s not only rock ‘n’ roll, you know?
There’s barely a song title, much less an album title, mentioned by name in the film. Aside from what’s essentially a 15-minute abridged cut of the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter summarizing the shitty events of December 6, 1969, at Altamont, dates and years are virtually absent. This deliberate omission of any sort of careerist context could certainly add fuel to the argument that a project like this is mere self-aggrandizement, self-mythlogizing on a wide-screen scale. Except that the myth is already gospel; Crossfire Hurricane exists to cement that legend into law, to provide heretofore inadmissible (or irretrievable) evidence, to fill in whatever gaps might still somehow exist in the official story, to form the ur-rock fable, hit singles and chart positions and creative-slash-commercial peaks and valleys be damned. The chronology is there, the details are not. There’s always Wikipedia if you want to keep up.
4. Hope You Didn’t Have Any Questions About “Steel Wheels”
The decision to end the movie cold with the fireworks from Hal Ashby’s 1981 concert flick Let’s Spend the Night Together freezes band, and its story, in amber. No solo albums, no Dirty Work or A Bigger Bang, no ‘80s-vintage Mick vs. Keith acrimony, no anything. Which is fine for any fan who likes their ur-fable unsullied by thoughts of corporate sponsorships or largesse or spotty musical output or dwindling cultural relevance or Darryl Jones or crow’s-feet. These things make the story more complicated, and being complicated is clearly not on the agenda. But to the movie’s substantial credit, another hour on top of its already near-epic length wouldn’t have felt like bloat. Ultimately, Crossfire Hurricane is, by design, less a celebration of the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary than a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ 20th anniversary.