Stones Unturned: 'Crossfire Hurricane' Documents the Danger and Daring of Rock's Most Durable Band
By Steven Rosen
We're not even five minutes into Crossfire Hurricane, the new documentary about the Rolling Stones' long career as rock 'n' roll icons, when there's a scene that makes us say, "Whoa! This movie is not going to hold back."
It occurs between the key opening credits-the name of the director and the title of the film. In grainy black-and-white footage taken in the early 1970s, we're taken into a Stones dressing room. Mick Jagger raises a knife blade to his nostrils and satisfyingly inhales whatever was on it. Crossfire Hurricane, which premieres November 15 on HBO and will be released on DVD in 2013, clearly is not going to be an airbrushed, polite celebration of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.
This revelatory moment comes before we even know how the roughly two-hour film will be structured or what about the Stones' long career-the band is celebrating its 50th anniversary-will be stressed. Very quickly, the film's director, Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture; Chicago 10), boldly states that this movie will not protect its respected-elder subjects from the transgressions of their wild youth (and middle age).
The snorting-cocaine shot comes from outtakes from Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank's film about the Stones' 1972 US tour. That shows the lengths Morgen went to find his material. Frank's film was never officially released because even the Stones found it too controversial (copious amounts of sex and drugs to go with the rock 'n' roll); a court order, which still stands today, allows the film to be shown only when Frank himself is physically present, and the film cannot be screened more than once in a given year. "There aren't even shots of Mick doing blow in Cocksucker," Morgen says, during a telephone interview. "It was a very conscious decision, made before I started to make the film, that somewhere in the first five minutes there needs to be some indicator, some signifier, that we were going behind the curtain. It was important for me to create a covenant with the audience at the very beginning that the film was going to be an uncensored, unfiltered approach to the Stones."
Since Crossfire Hurricane-the title comes from the lyrics for "Jumpin' Jack Flash"-is a film initiated by the Stones and produced by Jagger (with three other Stones-Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood-serving as executive producers), that covenant was, Morgen concedes, "smoke and mirrors. I was constantly saying, ‘I need a shot of you guys doing drugs in the first five minutes of the film because it will allow the audience to feel we are seeing things we're not supposed to see.'" The Stones agreed, but gave him a quota: "I believe I was given one for that first sequence," Morgen recalls.
Morgen's film unfolds like an incantatory tone poem, a wall of sound and vision that has the same rough-edged emotional high and thrilling, scary, chaos-flirting sensuality that drove the Stones' greatest songs from their greatest period-the late 1960s' creative outburst that produced "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Street Fighting Man," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Gimme Shelter," "Let It Bleed" and more.
Crossfire Hurricane constantly features Stones music, much of it previously unreleased versions of the classics. But the songs are rarely formal, complete "performances." They are finessed into what is overall a subjectively edited, tour-de-force showcase for photomontage.
There is an overall narrative thrust, a journey from the Stones' early days as the grungy, bluesy, sexually nasty alternative to the cuter Beatles (an image created by Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham) to their triumph as arena-ready, crowd-friendly superstars of the late 1970s. "It's about guys who get cast to play these roles as antiheroes, and they're sort of playing it as a joke until they get busted for drugs in 1967 and it's no longer funny," Morgen explains. "Then they become the characters they were playing, and these characters almost devour them and kill them. Ultimately they work through it and come out the other side, and that's where my film ends.
"It's very much in the spirit of Joseph Campbell," Morgen continues. "To have these five guys plucked from obscurity, thrown into the fire, tested in every which way and emerge as immortals, legends." (Of course, one of them-founder Brian Jones-didn't survive. He died of a drug overdose in 1969, after having been fired from the band.)
The archival video clips of interviews, some quite droll and funny, do pertain to that narrative, but they are also part of the overall whirling, enveloping soundscape. More critical are the contemporaneous interviews done individually with the Stones-Jagger, guitarist/co-songwriter Keith Richards, Bill Wyman (bassist from 1962-1993), drummer Charlie Watts, guitarist Mick Taylor ((1969-1975) and Ron Wood (guitarist since 1975). But they are heard rather than seen, and not identified when they speak. It isn't always clear who is saying what, beyond Jagger's and Richards' recognizable voices.
"I wanted the interviews to be as informal and intimate as possible, which is why no cameras are in the room," Morgen says. "Although it may not come out like this in the film, they were very much like therapy sessions. We did 80 hours of interviews, a substantial amount for a band like the Stones to sit through. Some of the most interesting stuff had to be left on the editing-room floor."
The Stones had final cut on the film. "It was OK for me because I knew if they didn't, they would really clam up when I did the interviews," Morgen explains. "I had my best hope of getting some fresh insights in letting them have final cut so they could talk freely. I learned that years ago, when I worked for Barbara Kopple and she did a film on Woody Allen, Wild Man Blues, on which Woody had final cut. [Wild Man Blues documents Allen's jazz-band tour of Europe, while affording glimpses into his then-new relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, which had been considered scandalous in some quarters when first revealed.] As a result, Barbara was able to shoot everything that happened. What Woody ended up objecting to wasn't any intimate moment with Soon-Yi, it was how he played clarinet in one scene. It was things that were very mild."
Morgen and his crew-including editors Conor O'Neill and Stuart Levy and sound designer Cameron Frankley-shaped Crossfire Hurricane by first choosing the new interview extracts he wanted. But they had already gone through the Stones' archives to see what kind of footage was available, especially looking for outtakes and never-before-seen material. For example, Morgen matches outtakes from David and Albert Maysles' Gimme Shelter, a vérité-style look at the Stones' 1969 US tour, with the Stones' reflective comments to show the band as frightened victims of the Hell's Angels violence at the infamous 1969 outdoor concert in Altamont. It's a revisionist take.
"Altamont in Crossfire Hurricane is played very differently from Altamont in Gimme Shelter," Morgen maintains. "What we wanted to achieve with this is a whole film done through the Stones' point-of-view. It was as horrific for them as anyone else. It was one of the few times in Mick Jagger's career he wasn't able to control a crowd with his taunting or his dancing. All his tools were ineffective."
Surprisingly, for a band celebrating its 50th anniversary, Crossfire Hurricane covers virtually no territory after the 1978 Some Girls album (and after Richards in the late 1970s avoided a lengthy Canadian jail term for heroin possession). It was a time, Jagger comments in the film, when the Stones were "transitioning into something not so dangerous," where big crowds turned out to have fun, rather than live on the cutting edge.
That seemed to Morgen a good place to end. "I only had two hours and I felt my story came to a logical conclusion when the band had become royalty," he says. "Not that the next phase of story isn't interesting, but my story had concluded."
Steven Rosen is a freelance Cincinnati-based arts writer, and a former Denver Post movie critic. His stories are posted at www.stevenrosenwriter.com.