Back in the day, if you asked a Rolling Stones fan if they envisioned the band still rocking out in their 60s – or, in the case of Charlie Watts, his 70s – they probably would have laughed in your face – not because the band wasn’t great, but because at the time rock ‘n’ roll was considered to be music by, for and about youth.
Many ’60s bands were about rebellion in one form or another, but the Stones, perhaps more than any other group, epitomized the theme. At one point in “Crossfire Hurricane,” Brett Morgen’s 50th anniversary tribute film airing tonight on HBO, a young Mick Jagger is asked by a TV interviewer why British youth are so dissatisfied with their lives. It is simply that they are pushing back against “the generation which they think controls them,” Jagger says.
And why are the Stones dissatisfied? Because of “the generation that controls us,” Jagger answers again.
Today, the band members are a few generations beyond the age their parents were when the Stones were formed in 1962 (Keith Richards, for one, calls the 50th anniversary premature because the band’s first record came out in ’63). The surviving Stones reached the age of “the generation that controls them” decades ago.
They weren’t really bad boys at the start – that was the image then-manager manager Andrew Loog Oldham fashioned for them when he decided they would be marketed as the “anti-Beatles,” the black hats to Paul and John’s white hats.
They were educated – Mick at the London School of Economics, Keith at the Sidcup Art College – and Brian Jones was considered the best musician among the original group members. Although one of their goals in forming the band was to reject how “show-biz” pop music was becoming in England in the early ’60s, once Oldham crafted their image, the band members started living up to it, as Mick says in the film.
You’ll also hear Jagger speaking frequently about acting. In a vintage interview, he shrugs off a question about his technique by saying he isn’t an actor – he just goes out on stage and does his thing. Yet, he also admits he “literally” learned his rubber-legged stage persona from Little Richard. Elsewhere, he and other band members talk about the differences between who they are on stage and who they are off.
Over time, the Stones transitioned to becoming the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, but what’s clear in the kaleidoscopic overview Morgen provides in “Hurricane” is that, except for age and some personnel change, the band never changed its tune, so to speak. It wasn’t so much that the bad boys became good boys: It’s that many of the people who called them bad boys are gone now, and their children are just as old as the Stones and have never stopped listening to them.
Taking its title from a lyric of “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Crossfire Hurricane,” produced by the Stones themselves, focuses heavily on the years from the band’s formation through the next two decades, mining material and outtakes from previous documentaries, including “Gimme Shelter,” “Charlie Is My Darling” and “C--sucker Blues.” The film is “narrated” by the Stones themselves, through recent interviews with current members, as well as Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman.
The film begins with the STP tour stop at Madison Square Garden, where Dick Cavett and his TV film crew follow the band into their dressing room, crowded with the likes of Truman Capote and Andy Warhol. Later, we see the band’s plane heading skyward. When it lands again, we’re back in England in the early ’60’s to re-trace the journey of how the band was formed and became wildly popular almost overnight.
If you don’t know much about the band and are looking for a kind of Rolling Stones 101, “Crossfire Hurricane” probably isn’t the best place to start. To appreciate the film, you need a basic knowledge of the band, of the decline and death of Brian Jones, and of Jagger and Richards’ roller-coaster relationship over the years.
It also helps to be able to identify the speaking voices of the individual Stones: There is often a subtle visual clue to the speaker’s identity in the archival footage, but it’s not the most effective way of telling us who’s talking. Mick is easily identifiable because his voice is more familiar. Keith also is easily identifiable because his voice is singularly ravaged. The other current and former members are more of a challenge.
“Hurricane” is a whirling impressionistic painting of the band, beautifully conveying the energy, drive and genius of the Stones, more or less chronologically within the basic flashback structure.
Some critical events emerge from time to time – Jones’ firing and his subsequent death by drowning, the chaos and tragedy of the Altamont concert – but there is virtually nothing about the Stones’ wives or girlfriends (Anita Pallenberg had been Jones’ girlfriend but had moved on to Richards), and no exploration at all of the complex Mick-Keith relationship – to this day, the cauldron of the band’s creativity and longevity.
There is no need for “Crossfire Hurricane” to ask why the Rolling Stones are the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band: The answer is in the music and the energy, and not just because, unlike the Beatles, they survived and are still together.
It would have seemed anachronistic once for a bunch of senior citizens to be rocking out about sex, lost love and rebellion, but while many of their contemporaries are peddling tamer versions of their greatest hits on PBS pledge drive shows, the Stones are still rolling, and rocking with singular credibility. That’s because no matter how old they are, how they look offstage, they are still able to become in performance the “lost boys” they have been for half a century.