Crossfire Hurricane debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Let it never be said that The Rolling Stones have gone undocumented. The group has inspired piles of books and films to the point where Stones reflections, like those on Dylan and The Beatles and other iconic peers, have become a subgenre unto themselves. At this point it should probably be a requirement that a Stones-based project promises to say something new about the band—its history, music, or cultural significance—to be allowed to go forward. Crossfire Hurricane, a new documentary occasioned by the group’s 50th anniversary, would fail that litmus test. That doesn’t make it a bad film. As a summary of the group’s history focusing on the first decade and a half of its existence, it offers a brisk, compellingly made overview that hits all the major, expected landmarks of the band’s history to the accompaniment of new insights from the band’s members, both past and present. Of the many sources from which someone might learn about the Rolling Stones it’s better than most. But anyone looking for new details, or a new take on that story, should look elsewhere.
That’s partly because of the approach taken by director Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays In The Picture), which leans heavily on archival footage, some of it quite familiar. The best moments capture the impact the band had in the 1960s. Scenes from an early concert show a performance devolving into chaos as audience members take the stage and one by one each of the band’s members are forced to stop playing and a scene from The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus finds Mick Jagger looking the part of “Sympathy For The Devil”’s demonic protagonist as he disrobes to reveal a Satanic image seemingly tattooed on his chest.
Though that special didn’t see the light of day until 1996, the scene still suggests the shock of the new that song must have held at the time. So does the footage of appalled oldsters who seem to have stepped out of BBC central casting as they object to the wild-haired hooligans come to claim their daughters. Morgen’s film is rarely better than in the early scenes revisiting the context in which the Stones looked new and dangerous and rarely more compelling than when exploring Keith Richards’ theory that it was the cultural outrage that prompted them to hone their nasty edge. As the ’60s progressed and Jagger and Richards survived a drug conviction that sold a lot of tabloid newspapers, what one commentator at the time described as “their carefully calculated air of ‘blow you, Jack’” took a diabolical turn.
That’s not a new story, but Morgen retells it effectively—and even if the new interviews from the band don’t offer much in the way of fresh insight, the Stones remain witty chroniclers of their own lives. They’re also skilled at telling the parts of the story they want to tell. The band produced the film, so it’s not clear if it’s by Morgen’s design or edict from above that Crossfire Hurricane only touches on the Stones’ personal lives when they overlap with their professional lives. To point to the most obvious example, Marianne Faithfull is distractingly conspicuous by her exclusion.
The familiarity is more of a problem. The death of Brian Jones, Altamont, the French exile, the decadent ’72 tour, Mick Taylor’s entrance and exit, and Richards’ Toronto drug bust all get their moment, and often it’s just a moment. Though Crossfire Hurricane mostly ignores the last 30 years of the group’s history, as the film progresses it starts to feel as if it’s not a narrow enough focus. Many of those chapters could inspire films all their own. Some have, in fact, and Morgen’s reliance on scenes from Gimme Shelter and Cocksucker Blues gives the impression that his film is giving once-overs to tales told better elsewhere. As a big-picture look at The Rolling Stones, it’s nicely done. Whether it’s in any way necessary, however, is another matter.