Rolling Stones in the Crossfire
50 Years on DVD
On the eve of their 50th anniversary, the Rolling Stones granted an interview to film director Brett Morgen on one condition: "No cameras allowed in the room." The resulting documentary, Crossfire Hurricane (out on DVD and Blu-ray), features the voices of the Stones, occasionally against black backdrops but mostly over a dynamic mosaic of often fascinating archival footage covering… if not precisely every year in their half century, then at least the essential years. In other words, the chronicle peters out somewhere in the '80s, by which time the band Keith Richards describes as "a little less than show business" at their inception became show business itself.
The Stones began as a blues cover band when British lads playing the blues was boundary crossing, even edgy. As they recall when time came for their second album, someone realized it might be good to begin writing their own songs. "Tell Me" was their first, and one bit of footage captures the band in a hotel room, working out "Sitting on a Fence." Producer-impresario Andrew Loog Oldham is credited with the concept of the Stones as the anti-Beatles, the anti-heroes of pop. But an observer detached in space and time—a rock fan from Mars—might find little to differentiate A Hard Day's Night from some of the Super8 shots of the Stones traveling by train to a gig, cutting up in their compartment and outracing shrieking fans on their way to the concert hall. Their haircuts were almost Beatlesque in 1965—and sometimes the Stones even wore neckties!
But clearly, if they were acting out a play Oldham devised for the media, they were well suited for their roles and eager to devour everything served by the Swinging '60s. Except when playing dumb for dumb reporters, the Stones were sophisticated actors, often polite and polished. Richards and Mick Jagger readily concede that Brian Jones was the musical genius early on. Alas, says Jagger, "Brian took too many of the wrong drugs." Crossfire Hurricane shows Jones with the band in the studio executing some beautiful slide guitar for "No Expectations." And then, according to Jagger, the band’s founding guitarist faded to black.
Stones’ concert footage from the '60s shows the power of their music, which still sounded unpremeditated yet threatening. By the end of the '60s Jagger, citing Little Richard as inspiration, had perfected his dangerous dervish act. Richards is correct that there was nothing they could do at Altamont once the concert erupted into murderous violence—quitting the stage might have triggered a larger conflagration—but surely he must wonder about the wisdom of hiring the Hells Angels as security?
A near fatal turning point was reached in the '70s when Richards was arrested in Toronto with an ounce of heroin. The guitarist with nine lives makes no apologies, but concedes: "One thing that was more important than smack was the band." His court-ordered therapy probably saved his life and preserved the Stones, who continued without Jones—and Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman—but would have seemed half-missing without Richards.
Crossfire Hurricane is co-produced by the Stones, so it stands as an authorized account. What's fun about that are the band members' ready admission of memory failure and even conflicting recollections.