Crossfire Hurricane, the new documentary chronicling the fifty year (well, up to about 78 anyway) history of the Rolling Stones aired on HBO and BBC late last year. This is the first time I’ve been able to view it, and all things considered, the feelings I have on it are quite mixed. First I have to put away my fandom hat here, as the Stones are one of my all time favorite bands and their story is of course, the stuff of rock legend. That said how Crossfire Hurricane handles that story is kind of disjointed and unsatisfying at times. Instead of having a narrator carry the story throughout, all the surviving members of the band are interviewed in a room off camera and their answers to various questions are inter-cut with a whole lot of old footage of them in their younger days and old interviews of the band. Now it should be said, that a lot of this old footage is pretty rare and cool old stuff that even I had never seen before.
Watching this documentary is kind of like being in a bar with six old chaps all talking over each other about their favorite old war stories, while said war stories are on a TV monitor right in front of you. It is a bit hard to determine just who is talking sometimes. When Mick Jagger or Keith Richards are speaking it is easy to pick them out, as they have two of the most distinctive and unmistakable voices of the 20th century. As for the remaining four voices here consisting of Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, and Ronnie Wood, well, they all sort of blend into one another and if you aren’t really paying the closest of attention, you’ll not have the faintest idea of who is speaking most times in this movie. That aside though the really interesting part about this documentary for me was all the rare footage, and the great selection of music, including many not often played gems like ‘No Expectations’ and ‘Sweet Virginia’ just to name a few. You don’t just get a bunch of old concert footage, which would have been cool enough on its own, but you get glimpses into what it was like to be a part of the band during many iconic moments on the road, in the studio, and often, on the run.
As said this story is the stuff of rock legend, and Crossfire Hurricane adds little to it that most people even casually associated with the band don’t already know. In the beginning the Stones were marketed as the ‘Anti-Beatles’, and were to be the bad boys of the British Invasion. Massive success followed, and concerts that were most often cut short not even midway through because of wild crowds of really, really, horny teenage girls trying to rush on stage and basically rape these ‘poor’ lads. Massive amounts of drugs followed that, and of course all the infamous arrests, the most infamous being the one at Richard’s home in Redlands, which you get to see what you are lead to believe is footage of him and Jagger stumbling around on acid earlier in that very same day.
The tragic tale of Brian Jones is also retold. Jones was the most accomplished musician and in many ways the original front man for the Stones in the early days before it became the Jagger/Richards band, and according to most of his band mates, he was a very ‘complicated’ person. Complicated is a polite way to say that while he was very talented, he was also a rude, obnoxious, prima-donna and a pain in everybody’s arse. As the sixties progressed Jones, according to Richards and Jagger started taking ‘too many drugs’ (when Keith Richards says you’re taking too many damn drugs, it’s probably time to listen..) and on top of that the ‘wrong kind’ of drugs. Well, Keith would know I guess. All this was negatively affecting Jones ability to contribute anything useful musically to the group and so he was fired and replaced by the Blues Rock virtuoso Mick Taylor. Very shortly after this Jones went on to become the first member of the ’27 Club’ of famous rock stars that passed away at the age of twenty-seven. Within two years of Jones’ death in 1969 both Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison (both friends of Jones) would join him in the great beyond, both at the all too young and tragic age of twenty-seven.
A whole lot of interesting details are left out here, such as Ian Stewart’s contributions to the band (in Keith’s biography he basically said the Stones were always Ian’s band in his mind) and how he was pushed out of the group (officially that is, he still played with them until his death in 1985) due to his not fitting the ‘look’ the record company wanted, and because the Stones already had five members without including him, which they felt was pushing it. There’s also nothing said about the many sordid affairs in the group such as Keith sleeping with both Mick Jagger and Brian Jones wives (and vice versa) and all the other interesting infighting in the group is completely glossed over.
The documentary spends a good chunk of time on the events that transpired at Altamont in 1969. This free concert in California went on to be known as the show that officially ended the hippy movement and signaled the death of the sixties. In reality, it was just a really horribly planned out concert. For starters, getting a few hundred thousand college aged kids together and then hiring the Hell’s Angels to provide security? And on top of that paying said Hell’s Angels not with cash but in FREE CASES OF BEER? Anyone who didn’t see this ending badly is an idiot. The mood was tense from the start with literally everyone drunk or stoned out of their mind. Mick Jagger is punched in the face as soon as he steps off the helicopter, and a member of Jefferson Airplane was knocked unconscious by one of the Angels. And of course, the biggest tragedy of the night, the “murder” of eighteen year old Meredith Hunter. I put the word murder in quotation marks because this is one case where I really can’t fault the Angels for their use of deadly force. Hunter is clearly seen on camera pulling out and possibly (there is a brief flash but it is not sure whether it is from the gun or just a flash in the lens) firing a long black revolver. Literally within seconds you see a member of the Hells Angels with a knife repeatedly stabbing Hunter in the upper region of the back until they both go out of camera range. It’s impossible to say for sure, but who’s to say that if that biker hadn’t of taken out that kid that he would not have used that weapon on another crowd member or someone in the band? Everyone in the band weighs in on the emotional tole this took on the group at the time, mostly they’re just thankful to have made it out of there. After Altamont, the Stones became known for a long, long time as the most dangerous band in the world, so in a twisted sort of way, it, like all the arrests and drug fueled newspaper stories, added to their popularity.
In the 1970s the Stones had what would be their last truly great decade of music. At the center of that was the 1972 album ‘Exile on Main Street’. The making of this album has its own documentary that was released a few years back, but this one obligatorily spends a little bit of time giving you the basic details of what happened there as well. Basically, the Stones fleeing the high income taxes and in some cases criminal charges in England, went to the south of France and rented a spacious, extravagant old mansion named Nellcôte, where they then proceeded to completely wreck the place with the most hedonistic parties since the days of the Roman empire. It was in the basement of said mansion that the majority of Exile would be recorded. After Exile, while the band did manage a few more hit records, they would never again sore to the artistic heights that they managed in that record. Making matters worse, Mick Taylor, the guitarist who replaced Brian Jones left the band in the 1975. He was replaced by former ‘Faces’ guitarist Ronnie Wood, who has remained with them to this day. The story goes on from here, but the documentary, perhaps wisely, stops somewhere after 1978 as this was the last period in which you could truly say the group had yet to become the self parody they are today, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.
If you’re hoping this documentary will shed some light on stuff you probably didn’t know about the world’s most famous rock n’ roll band, then you might as well prepare yourself for disappointment here. This is pretty much just the bare bones version of the Rolling Stones history. For someone looking for a fuller and more in depth look at that subject you’d be better served to dig up the various biographies and other books written on them over the years. Basically the Rolling Stones story in a nutshell; they start a blues rock band, they get signed to a big recording contract and become famous as the original bad boys of popular music, Keith Richards does a lot of drugs, Mick and Keith get arrested, Brian Jones dies, Keith Richards does a lot more drugs, there’s the infamous concert at Altamont, Keith Richards does even more drugs, they move to France and record the amazing ‘Exile on Main Street’, Keith Richards does all the remaining drugs in the universe, and then decides to clean his act up somewhat. They record ‘Some Girls’ and ‘Tattoo You’ and then proceed to do absolutely nothing relevant (musically) for the next three decades. Mick and Keith feud over control of the band. Keith probably did some more drugs sometime around here. That’s the short facetious version anyway. But really, you don’t learn that much else in the documentary itself.
Those flaws aside, I have to give this documentary some props for all of the really interesting and very rare archival footage, the terrific use of music, and of course the interviews themselves. Say what you will about Keith Richards, but he is nothing if not entertaining to listen to. If the whole thing had been tidied up a bit with a proper narrator, and some issues had been probed a bit deeper then this could have been a truly great documentary, as it stands, this is probably something for only hardcore fans of the band to appreciate. Everyone else would be well served to avoid this probably. That’s my take on it anyway. Thanks for reading.
Crossfire Hurricane gets a two out of five: FORGETTABLE.