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First things first in tackling the new Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane released last week on DVD:
If you’re expecting a comprehensive chronological cataloging of the Stones and all their exploits, prepare to be sorely disappointed. While intriguing, Crossfire only takes the band from its early years to about 1980 and then, poof, it is over.
It’s a bit of a shocker if you go into the movie anticipating the definitive Rolling Stones doc, filled with tales of druggy debauchery, the secret to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards creative relationship, the real truth behind Brian Jones’ death, and all the juicy fighting that occurred over the past few years when Richards used his autobiography to famously slag his frontman for all sorts of indiscretions.
Instead, the film reflects that director Brett Morgen was confronted with some fairly serious limitations when the band commissioned a documentary to help celebrate its 50th anniversary, most notably: how do you capture a half century of a band’s existence in one film?
His answer, and the one the Stones signed off on, was to only focus on the early years with a theme that returns again and again: how dangerous the band seemed when they first started playing blues covers in 1963 and their emergence into a rock and roll powerhouse.
Unfortunately, even that is a familiar story.
Every Stoneophile knows that manager Andrew Loog Oldham intentionally cast them as the anti-Beatles, and the grimy, hard-partying Jagger, Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Jones were game to play along.
So rather than gloss over the band’s entire career, Morgen keeps the film in that wheelhouse, which covers their spectacular rise through the ‘60s, Jones’ death from drowning, the tragedy of the Altamont Speedway concert, the various drug busts, Richards’ descent into heroin abuse, the growing size of the band’s tours..
And then it all ends with no second or third act.
The director makes a second interesting artistic decision that is telling. Rather than film current interviews with the band members, they were recorded as voice overs. This prevents us from seeing the relatively fresh-faced lads before cutting to what would certainly be jarring images of their craggy old mugs today.
Crossfire Hurricane yields a fair number of interesting nuggets, mostly because it is fascinating to see film of those early years in context with what we know happened. It is shocking to see the degree to which rabid fans hurled themselves on stage in a punk-like fervor to not only touch or kiss the band members, but literally assault them.
Over and over again, fans, both male and female, charge up on the stage as the band charges through raw, aggressive R&B songs with a garage band brutality that reflects the scene. Limbs fly, security men hard-tackle kids who are thrown from the stage, and the band eventually bolts for the exit after getting knocked around.
“You stayed there as long as you could until you were besieged,” Richards said in a voice over.
“I hated that,” the notoriously taciturn Watts said.
Images of Jones in the studio near the end of his life, stoned out of his pretty gourd, are shocking. Jagger and Richards sound sincerely saddened by his descent and seem to regret not doing more for him while also admitting they had know idea how to help.
The Altamont concert in which an audience member was murdered and the Hells Angels went on a rampage is framed from the point of view of what the band saw from the stage and it’s a scary vantage. As Richards said, the Angels were stoned on “Ripple wine and acid” and counter to the beatific visages that are generally associated with the hippie era, there’s a creepy meanness to the crowd at Altamont.
The stage looks claustrophobic as the band is hemmed in by the intense audience and freaked out bikers. The chugging, violent nature of the music seems to fuel the bad vibe and in retrospect this probably wasn’t a great time to try “Sympathy For the Devil.”
At one point a dog wanders across the stage and Jagger does his best to calm people down, but it’s a bad dream that ends in tragedy, all of which is captured brilliantly in the film.
The rest of the story is equally familiar — the drug busts, the wild behavior, the transition to the affable Ronnie Wood as Richards’ guitar mate when Mick Taylor left the band and the transition from bad boys to established arena rock band.
Some of the footage is fascinating. We see Jagger practically naked and at one point he snorts something (we’ll presume it’s cocaine) from a knife before a show. The concert films from the early 1970s are fantastic with the band playing at a relentlessly aggressive pace that is a reminder of their greatness.
Included as extras in the release are films of early concerts that prove how far the group evolved from a raw blues band into a musical force and an interview with Morgen as he explains how he made the documentary.
There is nothing in the movie about the band’s personal lives during the period it covers and there is no salacious gossip or insider information about how the Stones interacted with each other and coped with the madness. The closest it comes to that sort of thing is when Jagger talks about himself at that time as an extroverted “character” who externalized the attention to protect his “inner self.”
In the end it is easy to sympathize with Morgen’s plight. He was stuck with either plowing through a “greatest hits” kind of look at their career or something more focused. Crossfire Hurricane delivers the latter, but it’s hard not to want more.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.