Last night I attended the red-carpet premiere of the new Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane, at the Odeon Leicester Square. Well, no: I was there in spirit only, actually attending one of these increasingly common events where we sit in a cinema in our home town and experience a live event going on somewhere else. In this case, the Odeon in Liverpool One screened the London Film Festival premiere of Brett Morgen’s Stones 50th anniversary film to a three-quarters empty cinema.
Preceded by red-carpet interviews with each of the Stones and various other luminaries smooching the crowds on their way into the premiere, Crossfire Hurricane proved to be a brilliantly-edited, visceral documentary that was great fun to watch, but ended up being a bit strange.
These days documentaries are as slick and as finely edited as feature films (I first noticed this watching Charles Ferguson’s fine expose of the banking crash, Inside Job). Crossfire Hurricane features historical footage, much of it never seen before, skilfully edited without any narration or present-day talking heads interviews (so you need to be pretty familiar with the Stones’ story to keep up). Continuity is provided by period interviews and recent interviews conducted by Morgen with the Rolling Stones. A caption at the start informs us that no cameras were allowed during these sessions, so we only hear the Stones recalling their past, sometimes to a black screen.
The director and his team of editors have put together a spellbinding collage of the Stones’ rise to global megastardom, with only the best moments making their way into the two hour film. There have been other documentaries that have explored particular tours or shows (notably the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter, based around the terrifying Altamont festival), but only the BBC film, 25×5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones (which marked the 25th anniversary of the band’s formation), has previously attempted an overview of their career.
Crossfire Hurricane plunges us straight into the early years, with powerful, visceral footage that follows the band from their dressing room in some local Odeon circa 1963, along corridors and out on stage to a barrage of screaming teenage girls. Everything is chaos. The uniformed commissioners are out of their depth, and teenagers hurl themselves on stage, dragging Jagger to the floor before the concert is abandoned. Jagger recalls that the band used to bet how long they’d be able to play for before having to abandon the stage. Often it was all over in less than 15 minutes.
The film adds nothing new to our knowledge of the band or of their music: Jagger was the executive producer, so how could we expect anything other than a recapitulation of the Stones’ myth: how four blues-obsessed young men became the embodiment of counter-culture darkness and depravity. This is not to say that the film glosses over the drug busts or the licentious swirl of their lives back then: but this has long been in the public domain.
In fact, speaking today, Jagger recalls how their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, deliberately and provocatively positioned the band as the antithesis of the Beatles’ suited, lads next door niceness. He and Keith Richards note how being bad became a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to the arrest in 1967 of Jagger and Richards on drug charges. Jagger sees how that ‘cemented our relationship with the public’, while Richards, with his usual swagger, reckons: ‘They gave me a licence … That was when we really put the black hat on. Before that it was off-grey’.
The audio-only interviews reinforce the public personas of each band member. Richards, as always, is the bandit and romantic of the group, who says, ‘I didn’t have a problem with drugs…I had a problem with cops’, and talks about fleeing England for fear of the law in the early 1970s. Jagger’s voice follows immediately: ‘Keith always says he was chased out of England by the cops. He may believe that but it’s not actually true. The band left because of money’. This was when the band fled to the south of France to escape huge tax bills. Perhaps mindful of sensibilities in 2012, Jagger adds that they were doing it just to make enough money to pay off the Inland Revenue.
One disappointment of the film is that it barely mentions life before the Stones: their backgrounds or early years on the London jazz club circuit. Keith Richards drawls how he was simply a ‘blues player’ until this fame thing’ kicked in, while Jagger talks about how he modelled his early stage routine on Little Richard, challenging and goading the audience.
Crossfire Hurricane is most compelling tracing the Rolling Stones’ classic period, from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. This is where the film editing is at its most rivetting, even though the wider political and cultural context is hardly mentioned. Footage from earlier documentaries (such as Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus and Gimme Shelter) is used effectively. So just a few clips from Gimme Shelter paint a terrifying picture of Altamont, where a young man was murdered by Hells Angels hired to provide security. Charlie Watts memorably compares their recruitment as ‘like asking the Nazi party to sort out the front of the auditorium’.
Attention is given to Brian Jones’ contribution to the band – the man who founded the Stiones by recruiting the others, and who had ‘the best bottleneck guitar style in London’ (which we hear in ‘No Expectations’ on the soundtrack as accompaniment to an emotional account of his death.
The music throughout is tremendous, opening with a raw account of ‘Street Fighting Man’, along with remarkable performances of ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ and ‘Midnight Rambler’. Fired up after their brief period imprisonment following the 1967 drugs bust when Sussex police, tipped off by the News of the World, raided a party at Keith Richards’ home, they record ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash':
I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain,
But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas!
But it’s all right. I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash,
It’s a Gas! Gas! Gas!
Stones aficionados will gape, though, at the total omission of any reference, musical or otherwise to one of their greatest albums, Exile on Main Street.
Oddly, for a film released to mark 50 years of the group, Crossfire Hurricane treats the Stones’ career as having to all intents and purposes ended at the beginning of the 1980s. Keith Richards’ 1977 arrest for heroin possession in Toronto is the last significant event discussed, and the band members note how this was the period in which they went from being the group everyone hated to the one everyone loved. The last thing we see before the closing credits is footage of the 1981 Still Life tour. In a way, this makes sense: from that point, the Stones became little more than a brand, making huge amounts of money from world tours that promoted increasingly uninspiring albums.
A mesmeric ode to a collection of chain-smoking, substance-abusing rapscallions that took on the law, the establishment and the fragility of their own bodies and minds, whilst living long enough to tell the tale. What better way to celebrate The Stones’ 50th anniversary.
– Cine Vue review