Rock Gods

11.15.12

‘Crossfire Hurricane’ Chronicles Rolling Stones’ Road to Rock Immortality

It’s the 50th anniversary of legendary rockers the Rolling Stones. To mark the occasion, the documentary ‘Crossfire Hurricane,’ chronicling the band’s rise, premieres on HBO on Nov. 15. Marlow Stern talks with the film’s Oscar-nominated director about sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.

Crossfire Hurricane, Brett Morgen’s documentary commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones, starts off with a bang.

We’re transported backstage to the dressing room of the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” the Rolling Stones. It’s the 1960s and the lads are in their prime. Amid the plethora of lascivious groupies and starry-eyed journos stands the band’s lissome ringleader, Mick Jagger. Suddenly, he strips completely naked right in front of guitarist Keith Richards, before encasing his angular frame in a striped spandex bodysuit.

“That’s my favorite shot of the film,” says Morgen. “There’s this great moment where Mick’s naked and Keith arches his eyebrows and begins sashaying. I wanted it to have this raw feeling at the beginning of the film to create a covenant with the audience that there’s no filter here. You see Mick doing a bump of coke off a switchblade, and it’s no accident. We haven’t seen Mick do coke, ever.”

Morgen, who received an Oscar nomination for his acclaimed 2002 documentary on film producer Robert Evans, The Kid Stays in the Picture, and further accolades for 2007’s Chicago 10, received a call from Jagger last year while shooting a commercial for General Electric in North Carolina. The singer, a fan of the Evans doc, told Morgen he wanted him to direct the picture, and wasn’t interested in doing a multi-part series, since it would be too self-indulgent. The filmmaker and his crew started cutting together the film in April, conducting 80 hours of interviews with the band members in three-hour increments in London and New York, and combing through thousands of hours of archival footage.

Crossfire Hurricane is a great metaphor for the band’s journey, as well as making this film,” says Morgen. “We started cutting in April and had to finish in August. Normally, these films take years to put together.”

He continues: “I wouldn’t go see a ‘50th Anniversary Rolling Stones’ film because it sounds like a piece of merchandise you’d pick up at Best Buy. But we figured we could really blow people’s minds by doing something different: an art-experimental film.”

While there have been plenty of documentaries on the Rolling Stones to precede this one, Morgen’s film includes a grab-bag of new-ish gems: unreleased outtakes from their infamous concert at Altamont; outtakes from the unreleased doc Cocksucker Blues, including some chaotic footage from the band’s 1972 tour; and a captivating sequence of Jagger and Richards tripping on LSD and wandering through a forest. But it’s the aforementioned concert footage, replete with rioting and nubile girls in a state of sexual ecstasy, that stands out.

“I could see the water just running down between the seats,” says drummer Charlie Watts in the film. “It was just a flood of urine, pouring down. All the girls in the audience were wetting themselves.”

“The Rolling Stones are the closest people who have walked this planet to gods.”

After forming in Dartford, England, in 1962, the British group’s original lineup—Mick Jagger (vocals), Keith Richards (guitar), Brian Jones (guitar), Ian Stewart (piano), Bill Wyman (bass), and Charlie Watts (drums)—was soon taken under the wing of former Beatles publicist Andrew Loog Oldham, a Svengali type who branded the young, innocent lads as the anti-Beatles, or “villains,” in Jagger’s words.

They had, according to Morgen, “a wonderful, symbiotic relationship with the press.” The band would show up at London hotels without ties on and Oldham would immediately alert the press and have them snap photos of the band subsequently getting kicked out. “It’s good to have an actor who can play the part,” a chuckling Jagger says in the film.

However, around 1967 the press turned on the Stones and began to penetrate their personal lives, hiring private investigators to trail them at all times. The witch hunt came to a head when the News of the World’s P.I.’s informed the rag that Richards was hosting “a drug party” at his home in the Redlands. NOTW tipped off Scotland Yard and Richards and Jagger became the first major rock stars to be arrested for drugs—and publicly flogged—all over some pot-smoking. Richards was facing a decade in prison and Jagger three years, but after serving a few days, the lads were set free.

The press’ crusade against the Stones reminded Jagger of the recent News of the World hacking scandal.

“Mick and I talked about the parallels a lot,” says Morgen. “The only reason I didn’t put that in the film is because I didn’t want to date the film and we didn’t know if the Murdoch scandal was still going to be talked about in five years.”

“But that was a pivotal moment—a turning point—for the band,” adds Morgen. “Mick developed a much more cautious, cynical relationship with the press. And Keith said, ‘You want me to be your bad boy? I’ll be your motherfuckin’ outlaw,’ and got himself a six-shooter, and it was Jesse James time.”

Musically, the Stones hadn’t been on the chart in 18 months and were coming off Their Satanic Majesties Request, which hadn’t been well-received, Oldham had left his post managing the band because of their reckless attitude. The film’s title, Crossfire Hurricane, is a line from the band’s hit “Jumpin Jack Flash”—a song about rebirth that represented a new sound for the Stones. It brought them back to the hard-rockin’, pre-Maharishi days, and marked the beginning of a fantastic working relationship with producer Jimmy Miller.

The last 40 minutes or so of the film covers the band’s falling out with founding member Brian Jones over his heroin addiction, and his subsequent death, before plowing through the 1970s, including Altamont, Jones’ replacement, Mick Taylor, dropping out—to be replaced by the Faces’ bassist Ronnie Wood, which rejuvenated the group, and Richards’ wild-man persona. There are some notable omissions, like the Anita Pallenberg story–Jones's lover who ran off with Richards in 1967, leading to their acrimonious relationship—and, since the film ends in 1981, all the bad blood between Richards and Jagger over the latter’s focus on his solo career. The Pallenberg saga was omitted due to time constraints, says Morgen, adding, “Mick didn’t want me to end the film in ’81, but my narrative had come to full completion. They had already become an institution.”

Fifty years later, the Rolling Stones are still rockin’. The lads, who are now in their late 60s, are about to embark on a 50th anniversary mini-tour, dubbed One Last Shot, which includes five arena shows in London and New York. And New York’s Museum of Modern Art is hosting a retrospective, The Rolling Stones: 50 Years on Film, from Nov. 15 to Dec. 2.

“I can’t believe how much they’ve had to endure or persevere,” says Morgen. “Whether it’s Anita, Brian Jones dying, Altamont, Satanic Majesties, the departure of Mick Taylor—any of these things would derail a lesser band. But somehow, miraculously, the Rolling Stones always landed on their feet.” 

He pauses. “I feel like I can say this and it’s not overstating: The Rolling Stones are the closest people who have walked this planet to gods. Since they were 17-years-old, the world’s been at their fingertips. They’re totally fuckin’ blessed. Whether they made a deal at the crossroads … I dunno man.”