The greatest show in rock n’ roll

“It’s like a fairytale,” rasps Keith Richards when asked to describe his five decades as a Rolling Stone. Not the kind of fairytale used to soothe troubled infants, perhaps. But the story of the Stones is as fantastical and familiar as any good fable.
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And it’s true – well, most of it. Richards made up the stories about having his blood changed in a Swiss clinic and snorting his father’s ashes; Marianne Faithfull and the Mars bar is a myth. But the tale of the English blues fans who survived drug addiction, arrests, defections and deaths to become the World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band is one of pop culture’s most cherished narratives.

Pity the filmmaker who has to find something new to say about the Stones. Or, rather, don’t, because Brett Morgen was thrilled to get the gig. When Mick Jagger asked the 44-year-old American to make a documentary to mark the band’s 50th anniversary, he jumped at the chance.

“Mick … wanted to do something cinematic, that felt like a movie,” says Morgen, who premiered Crossfire Hurricane at the London Film Festival in October. “I decided to focus on the transition from scruffy anti-heroes to rock royalty.”

The film begins in 1962, the year the Stones formed, and ends it 1981 when their US tour grossed a staggering $US50 million. Unlike previous documentaries – 25×5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones (1989), for example – the band members don’t appear on camera. Their voices, recorded during 80 hours of one-on-one interviews, comment directly and indirectly on footage culled from every known archival source.

“It was a collective decision not to film the band members,” Morgen says. “I don’t like talking heads myself. They’re great for broadcast journalism but deadly in a cinema. And Mick said he didn’t want the film to be a bunch of old guys sitting in armchairs talking about the past.”

The Stones sound mostly the way they’ve always sounded. Richards is the unrepentant outlaw; Charlie Watts the reticent, uninterested loner. It’s left to Jagger to provide a few surprises – for example, the depth of his feeling about the death of founding member Brian Jones. Drug addiction left Jones incapable of contributing to the music and, in 1969, Jagger and Richards kicked him out of the group. Three weeks later Jones was found drowned in the pool of his country house.

“Brian is still a very charged subject,” Morgen says. “They all have a very different relationship to him and it’s changed since his death. I think Mick feels a lot of regret nowadays. Now he’s a grandfather and nearly 70, he realises they were just kids back then and didn’t know any better. They all did drugs, but Brian was someone who should never have taken them. Mick said to me several times that if he’d had the knowledge he had today, he would have sent Brian to rehab – or the whole band to rehab.”

Once the film was given the go-ahead, Morgen and his team gained access to every piece of film relating to the band. They compiled 1000 hours of footage, some of which had not been seen by the public. There were 40 hours of outtakes from Cocksucker Blues, the notorious feature about the 1972 US tour, as well as unused sequences shot on a short Irish tour in 1965.

“One of my great finds was some home movies the Stones shot during the 1973 Australian tour,” Morgen says. “It was shot by Mick and he’d pass the camera to Keith and the roadies.” That footage, including shaky images of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, is used in a segment discussing the departure of guitarist Mick Taylor in 1974. It is underscored by the band’s ragged ballad Angie.

“One of the interesting things that came through is that none of the guys had any idea why he [Taylor] left. And this is 35 years later. Keith couldn’t remember, Jagger thought it was a stupid decision and Charlie thought it was because he wanted a solo career. Mick Taylor explains it best. He says he was falling into heroin addiction and wanted to protect himself and his family from that scene.”

Some reviews of Crossfire Hurricane have criticised the documentary, claiming it simply recycles old footage and fails to say anything new. Morgen says “about 40 per cent” of the footage is previously unseen and, in any case, such criticisms miss the point. “When you make a film like this, you take all this material and appropriate it and make something new,” he says. “It’s postmodern film making in a way …”

His take on the band’s story is also contemporary. “The narrative I locked onto was the one about role playing – we all have roles to play and sometimes that role can destroy you,” he says. “These guys were cast to play the bad boys, but they were really quite innocent at first. Their hair was probably an eighth of an inch longer than the Beatles. But after Redlands [a drug raid on Richards’s country house in 1967] things started to get serious and dark. The band turned against the press. At that point they put on a black hat and played that role of the bad guys to the hilt. They are almost devoured by the roles they were playing. But the moment Keith kicks his habit, the story resolves itself … they become respectable.”

Morgen’s decision to end the film in 1981 – he says the Stones would have preferred the documentary to cover a broader period – seems to support the idea the band were a spent force after the release of Tattoo You. The director demurs. “They had a 20-year run in terms of creating incredible original material – that’s more than just about any artist that has walked this planet,” he says. ”And while their musical output might have become more sparse, they certainly fulfilled their destiny as the greatest show in rock’n’roll.”

Crossfire Hurricane

ABC2, Sunday, 8.30pm

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

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