Though there have been many films made about the Rolling Stones, they have all been either cinema verite snapshots of touring and recording, or live concert footage. These rank from the well regarded (such as Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy For The Devil and the Maysles Brothers' Gimme Shelter) to the rarely seen (such as Peter Whitehead's fascinating Charlie Is My Darling, only recently restored and released after decades of obscurity, and the notorious C***sucker Blues, which is still only available as a bootleg due to its controversial footage of sex and drugs). Crossfire Hurricane, the new documentary by Brett Morgen, makes good use of all these previous films as raw material and couples them with a brand new oral history provided by the off-screen surviving Stones to create a 50th anniversary appraisal.
As a fan of the Stones as well as an admirer of Morgen's previous The Kid Stays In The Picture and Chicago 10, I was looking forward to Crossfire Hurricane. Dealing with 50 years of a rock and roll institution in less than two hours is a challenge. The Beatles afforded their much shorter career far more room to sprawl in The Beatles Anthology, but this new film actually uses its limitations wisely - focusing on the most important years of the band. As the years catch up with the Stones as they are today (an institution and brand more than anything else) the film begins to fade out. What we are left with is what really matters: a look at when the band wrestled classic tunes out of difficult, exciting and dangerous times - essayed in a fast-moving tumble of narration and motion.
The Beatles certainly set up the game of pop music in the 1960s, but the Stones can be said to have left us with some of the more honest and compelling songs of the era. Under the guidance of their young manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, they positioned themselves as an anti-product.
No other band can claim the territory the Stones inhabited - the dangerous place closer to the violent epicenter of the era, and more unabashed about sex back when it was merely flirted with elsewhere. The footage in Crossfire Hurricane is compiled in such a manner as to make all of this quite clear and compelling. The film makes it easier to connect the frantic stage riots the Stones encountered (seen here in footage from their 1965 tour of Ireland) to the later bloody mess that was Altamont, where a young African American audience member lost his life at the hands of acid-and-beer-fueled Hell's Angels. There's a palpable violence that is apparent in the screams of the adolescent girls and later in antiwar demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere (commemorated in the Stones' Street Fighting Man) - both were seismic manifestations of young people breaking free from convention, whether it be sexual or political. The Stones alone among their pop peers acknowledged in their material that there was a dark side to all the upheaval. The Stones were provocative agents of change, and their flaunting of a disregard for propriety as it related at the time to class, sexuality and race made certain that they got both attention and also blame.
Some of the wear and tear involved in maintaining such a position is evident in the film. Certainly the obvious casualty was Brian Jones, the talented musician who started the group and was done in by fame and an inability to evolve from great player to star. As Mick Jagger and Keith Richard became songwriters and the band became more than musicians in terms of both position and notoriety, the pressure on Jones' limits and his fragile psyche became precarious. Dead within a short time after leaving the band, Jones wasn't the only victim.
The band changed direction in the early 1970s and never had quite as important relationship with its times, becoming instead something of a celebrity caricature of what it had started out as. The Stones now earn merit more from endurance than innovation, long becoming comfortable with the roles they've settled into. The damage done within the band after they became insulated tax evaders was more self-inflicted and less to do with challenging "petty morals" than with dealing with their own internal conflicts and maintaining their hard-won reputation. That's what makes any good, long look at the band in its more vital years all the more interesting.
The testimony is relatively candid, though the Stones themselves probably wouldn't be the ones to make sense of their legacy. The design, cinematography and editing of the film is probably the most articulate voice in this film.
Say what you will about the Rolling Stones, they may be sarcastic, misogynistic and more than a little Jurassic, but they have defined rock and roll for more than one generation. At their mid-century mark if you want something to remind you of what made them worthwhile, and make sense of the shambolic tangle of attitude and perseverance that built their legend, Crossfire Hurricane will fit the bill.
Written and directed by Brett Morgen
2012, 111 minutes
Photo: Internet Movie Database