The Rolling Stones' Crossfire Hurricane: Film Review

Rolling Stones PR Image Group - H 2012
Mark Seliger

Rolling Stones PR Image Group - H 2012

The world's biggest rock band celebrate their 50th anniversary.

The half-century retrospective rockumentary blends archive footage with fresh interviews.

Back in 1990, the surviving members of the Rolling Stones assembled on screen for Nigel Finch’s well-regarded mid-career documentary 25x5. But for this 50th anniversary retrospective, director Brett Morgen did not even get to turn his camera on the aging British rockers. Though the audio soundtrack includes new interviews with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and their fellow Stones, the visuals are a skillfully edited patchwork entirely drawn from existing archive footage.

Coinciding with a new greatest hits album and series of anniversary concerts, Crossfire Hurricane offers little new to even the most casual Stones fan. Fortunately, these Mount Rushmore-faced rock icons still have sufficiently supercharged charisma and brilliant music to carry off such a transparently commercial exercise in self-promotion. Following its world premiere at the London Film Festival today, Morgen’s documentary will air on HBO in the U.S. in November. Further limited theatrical screenings are possible, but this is a project targeted squarely at the home entertainment market.

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Aside from a few scrappy outtakes and rare TV clips, the main source material will be familiar to any Stones fan: from Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling to Gimme Shelter by the Maysles brothers, Robert Frank’s notoriously hard-to-see Cocksucker Blues and Martin Scorsese’s Shine A Light.  To his credit, Morgen threads these diverse elements together in a fluid and immersive way, attempting to conjure up the first-hand backstage feel of being in the Stones, a constant mini-riot of sound and sensation and crowd noise. This is emphatically not a concert movie but it includes agreeably ragged versions of Street Fighting Man, Paint It Black, Sympathy For The Devil, Jumping Jack Flash and more, most of them artfully woven together from different live recordings.

Despite being billed as a half-century retrospective, Crossfire Hurricane actually covers less than half the story -- there's plenty of detail on the band’s first two explosive decades as sexy young rebels with a prolific genius for catchy songs, but scarcely anything from their last three as a multi-millionaire corporate brand with ever-shrinking talents as songwriters. For the thousandth time, Jagger and Richards recall the epochal drugs bust at the guitarist’s country home Redlands in 1967 which led to both being briefly jailed, then pardoned. Two years later comes the death of fellow founder member Brian Jones and the catastrophic Altamont Speedway show near San Francisco, which collapsed into carnage and slaughter. The early 1970s finds the band hastily relocating to France to become tax exiles on Main Street. Drugs, debauchery, Dionysian decadence: great stories but, inevitably, very familiar.

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That said, the rapid juxtaposition of different chapters from the band’s history makes a grand spectacle, especially Jagger’s ever-shifting range of accents and political postures as he morphs from sulky beatnik student to priapic penis-in-furs to aristocratic man of wealth and taste. Russell Brand’s entire future career trajectory is mapped out here.

The new interviews are also sporadically revealing. Jagger makes a few telling remarks about his career as a “Method actor” and the expectations placed on rock stars: “it’s not about growing up, it’s about not growing up.” The band’s former bass player Bill Wyman recalls the “flood of urine” that accompanied their hysterical early shows, while Richards comes across as an eternal teenager still striking bad-boy pirate poses on the cusp of turning 70. The history of the Stones, he rasps contentedly, is “almost a fairy story.” Correct.

Morgen is an accomplished director-producer whose credits include the acclaimed archive documentaries The Kid Stays In The Picture and The Chicago 10, but his hands were clearly tied on Crossfire Hurricane, which paints a highly selective picture of the world’s biggest rock band. Their much-admired early manager Andrew Loog Oldham appears in a small cameo, but not their later and far more contentious business manager Allen Klein. Nor is there any sign of Marianne Faithfull, Anita Pallenberg, Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall or any of the other women who became central to the Stones story. No mention is made of the bitter fall-out between Jagger and Richards some three decades ago which wrecked their friendship and began their long creative decline.

Of course, it’s only rock and roll, and millions of fans will doubtless indulge these elderly gentleman rebels as they engage in yet another round of lucrative myth-making. In other words, Crossfire Hurricane is business as usual from the Stones, and good fun on its own terms. However, anyone expecting buried treasure or fresh insights into ancient rock folklore will get no satisfaction here.

Production companies: Tremolo Productions, Milkwood Films

Producers: Mick Jagger, Victoria Pearman

Cast: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor

Director: Brett Morgen

Editors: Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill

Music: Rolling Stones

Rating TBC, 111 minutes

Sales agent: Eagle Rock Entertainment