Perhaps you’re like me. You remember the Rolling Stones from when England’s Newest Hit Makers (1964) was new. You collected everything released thereafter up to A Bigger Bang (2005). You’ve seen and collected a bounty of documentaries and concert films from the Maysles’s 1970 Gimme Shelter to 1990′s 25×5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones. You’ve read a shelf full of books from Bill Wyman’s confessions of a sex addict to Keith Richards’ very rich 2010 Life. Is there anything left you didn’t already know?
Perhaps not. Still, the HBO documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, retells the Gospels of the Anti-Beatles in a way even the most knowledgeable of fans should appreciate. And if you’re among those whose interest in the band hasn’t been quite that exhaustive, it’s hard to beat Crossfire Hurricane as a good 150 minute retrospective of the Stones’ evolution. In addition, if you got grand-children who only know of the Stones via singers covering their songs on American Idol, the film created to honor the Rolling Stones 50th anniversary is a good vehicle to show them what the excitement was all about.
Directed by Brett Morgen, Crossfire Hurricane is more or less appropriately presented in three parts. Part one traces the formative years with Brian Jones in the band. Back then, being the bad boys of rock was largely an act crafted by manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Wisely, Morgen had the surviving Stones do their own narrations, but we don’t see the Stones as they look now. Instead, they share their memories while the viewers see archival footage of the young men on stage, off stage, and in newscasts as they start their careers with young girls wetting themselves, parents publicly annoyed, and inept interviewers asking inane questions about the meaning of it all. Time goes by, Jagger and Richards become songwriters, the wildness of the late ’60s kicks in, and suddenly the bad boy image is no longer mere public relations.
The second part begins with the death of Jones, the arrival of Mick Taylor, Altamont, and the band moving to France as tax exiles. Not only does the tone of the group’s output change, but so too the approach of the film. Instead of a quick overview of the highlights and low points of the ’60s and repeated “I don’t know” answers to interviewer questions, the Stones become very reflective of the changes in the band. Once, their problems came from external forces; now, they came from within. Taylor remembers the group becoming more of a live outfit and much of the discussion focuses on Richards’ descent into heroine use. Strangely, we don’t hear much music from the Taylor era. The longest sample is from “Midnight Rambler,” recorded in the studio while Jones was still a nominal Stone.
Finally, Taylor departs under mysterious circumstances (Jagger admits he never knew why it happened) and Ronnie Wood is on board. I’ve heard different accounts on how that happened. I’ve read Taylor announced he was leaving, and Jagger turned to Wood and asked if he’d like to join. By some accounts, Wood said he couldn’t right away as he was obligated to The Faces. In this film, he says he accepted immediately. Whatever the case, the focus shifts from a band on the dark side to a good time rock and roll band now acceptable in mainstream circles. Live shows were suddenly spectacles with supporting musicians on stage and special effects added to the mix. But the past 25 years of the band’s history were seriously compressed, the final song being “Miss You” from 1978′s Some Girls.
Whatever others may think, that choice makes perfect sense. From 1978 on, the Stones have unevenly issued uneven albums and haven’t really changed in any meaningful way. In a two hour film, you can’t get in everything. In the early years, for example, Andrew Loog Oldham gets his due, but there’s nary a word, discouraging or otherwise, about Allen Klein, Ed Sullivan, Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, or any other of the Stones’ women. We don’t see Dean Martin insulting them on his variety show. From the later years, nothing about the solo projects or World War III.
But what we do get is the Rolling Stones own versions of their careers with perspectives from all the major players. New interviews are segued into archival footage which is layered in with concert footage as well as previously unseen alternate takes of recording sessions. In a bonus interview, director Morgen tells us why he made many of the choices he did and how he found the footage in the Stones archives. He says the film’s title was taken from “Jumping Jack Flash,” a song about rebirth. If there ever was a band who knows all about rebirth, it was the Stones.
Speaking of archival footage, who could pass up the bonus performances? From 1964, we see the very young Stones on the NME Poll Winners Concert doing “Not Fade Away,” “I Just Wanna Make Love To You,” and their old concert closer, “I’m All Right.” From the same venue the following year, we hear them being bluesy on “Pain In My Heart” and ”The Last Time.” In 1964, The Stones did Lennon-McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” and the slow “You Better Move On” on The Arthur Haynes Show. Live in Germany in 1965, the guys played their break-through hit,”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and another take on “I’m All Right.”
In short, Crossfire Hurricane has more than enough vintage material to warrant its inclusion in any Rolling Stones collection. It’s certainly a far better souvenir of their 50th year than the televised concert they broadcast last fall. We can grouse about what wasn’t included all we want—that simply means there’s stuff out there we already have. Now celebrate the “Easter Eggs,” as Morgen describes the nuggets in the film, and be grateful those Rolling Stone vaults still have treasures to offer.