Can you sometimes get exactly what you want? The Rolling Stones turn the clock back on 50 years and open up the vaults. With mixed results.
In recent years, the artists of rock 'n' roll's golden period have begun to open up and look back, becoming less precious about exposure and mystique. Dylan has stepped out of the shadows and written his own book, Chronicles, and even allowed Martin Scorsese to interview him for his documentary, No Direction Home. Led Zeppelin have just wrapped up and readied for release footage of their celebratory one-off 2007 reunion show filmed at London's O2, Neil Young has penned his memoirs, as has Pete Townshend. Long mocked because of their advancing age (grey hair and wisdom is anathema to the rock music crowd), the Rolling Stones plow on. Interestingly, if blues or jazz were their trade, age would not be an issue. However, it is not, and it is. Undeterred, these baby boomers are still rocking out and -- if the latest single "Doom and Gloom" is anything to go by -- still capable of producing the goods. It's quite possibly their strongest single in years.
It is high time therefore for a look back on an illustrious career that has famously had more than its fair share of sex, drugs and rock n' roll. However, those looking for a Beatles Anthology-esque examination will be disappointed. This is more ramshackle than that, much like the band themselves. This is a concise one-off film of only 118 minutes. Considering it took director, Brett Morgan, four months to wade through the archive footage (with assistance from co-producer, Mick Jagger), it is a shame that he hasn't been minded to create a more sprawling work, befitting of the Stones' lengthy career. In fact, the documentary ends abruptly at around 1977, and offers nothing after this date, save for closing credit live footage of Exile On Main Street track "All Down The Line" lifted from the 2008 film, Shine A Light.
Opening with color backstage footage and a live rendition of "Street Fighting Man," attention soon turns to the early days, and the maelstrom that consisted of live performance in the early and mid-60s for the Rolling Stones, with the incessant screaming and stage invasions. Emphasis is firmly placed on what it must have been like within this vortex, having to deal with a rapid ascent and devotional teenage girls (England) and boys (the rest of the world).
Whilst discussing the early period, coverage is given in a frank manner as to the band's feeling about the demise of original band member, Brian Jones. Whilst acknowledging his talent, it turns out that the band felt a degree of inevitability over his eventual death. Even though an element of mystery hangs over the drowning, Jones' relationship with drugs is well-known (Godard's film, Sympathy for the Devil, shows an induced and distracted Jones in the studio). As matters arose, the death came only two days before a free Hyde Park gig in front of 500,000 people -- a gig that would mark a baptism of fire for new guitarist, Mick Taylor, and also act as a remembrance for Jones. Drummer Charlie Watts recalls Mick crying in the corner of the dressing room on the day of the performance. By contrast, Keith states that his reason for not going to the funeral is because he didn't want to make it 'a circus,' and that he didn't even go to the funeral of his own mother and father.
Arriving at the late '60s, there are compelling scenes offered up by the Altamont stabbing of Meredith Hunter, but these are taken from the previously released feature, Gimme Shelter. This time around, however, it is enhanced by comments from the band looking back, which is illuminating seeing as it has since been perceived as the incident that killed the hippie dream and the anti-Woodstock.
Although the archive footage is interesting, there is not necessarily a dearth of unseen live material. The narrative itself is loosely played with, especially at the start, diverging down different avenues whilst vaguely seeking a chronological path (of sorts).
There are some interesting revelations contained within this documentary that will interest fans. For example, Mick Taylor finally provides the reason as to why he left the Stones. Jagger himself concedes that he did not know or understand why, and Taylor goes on to explain that during the early '70s, he was falling into heroin addiction.
Bill Wyman also distills what he believes is the sound of the Rolling Stones. Bearing a theory to Richards oft-quoted opinion that many bands can rock but not many can roll, he points towards the sound as being a consequence of Charlie's decision to follow Keith's lead, which means that the drums come in slightly behind the guitar, which is unusual in itself, whilst Bill's bass would be slightly ahead. Wyman describes this as leading to 'a wobble' effect, where things could fall apart at any given moment.
There is some interesting black and white footage of Mick and Keith writing material together in what is either backstage or in some sort of hotel room. Having an insight into how they worked together on the verge of what would be a particularly prolific part of their career is fascinating. Keith later voices opinion that of all the songs they wrote, "Midnight Rambler" would be the essence of the Jagger/Richards writing partnership. He states a belief that anyone else could have written any of the other tunes, but only he and Mick would have thought about making an opera out of the blues.
Coincidentally, much like that tune, this is certainly a film that goes on a ramble of its own. Starting in slightly messy fashion, like a band tuning up after a short time apart, and taking a while to lock into the groove. What is perhaps most surprising in this film, is that Mick Jagger possibly comes out as the most human and grounded out of all of them, save for Charlie Watts (of course), as he takes the wind and glamour out of the sails of some of Richard's more wild testaments. He is also the most openly candid in his reflections.
This has a lot common with Scorsese's aforementioned, No Direction Home; a film which covered Dylan in his '60s phase up to his conversion from acoustic guitar to electric, and the reaction that he encountered. In that film, Dylan spoke looking back on the events in talking heads. This film is much like that in spirit. Brett Morgan has ensured that the new interviews remain off-screen, however, so that old footage can take up the screen time. It must be said that the strongest live footage remains those procured from the previously released Ladies & Gentleman.
As far as flaws go, no reference is made at all to Ian Stewart, which seems a glaring omission considering this is an overview of the Rolling Stones' career and all the significant players. His distinctive piano work enhanced songs such as "Brown Sugar," amongst many others, and his lack of appearance in this documentary feels unfair and a missed opportunity. Also, there is no real detail on the relationship the Stones had with manager Andrew Loog Oldham.
Introducing the film, Jagger congratulated Brett Morgan for managing to cover 50 years of the Stones in a couple of hours. Well, he hasn't managed that. He has covered 25 years pretty well, but with some gaping holes. Whether this is down to the Stones' reticence in opening up, or a lack of probing is anyone's guess. The sudden conclusion to the film stuns, and makes for a dismissive hand waving to the output of the Stones in their later years. Although it is arguable that no sane person would equate this latter-day output as being near those of the first 20-or-so years of their existence, there have been a few interesting diversions in the subsequent post-Tattoo You era. Scant time is offered for Ronnie Wood and his involvement, which is a pity.
All of this begs a question: Is there a directors cut? Much like Cameron Crowe's film on Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam Twenty, is there a chunkier cut filling out and coloring in the parts omitted here?
At the premiere, Jagger gave a warning to the audience in preparation for the film saying that not all of the clothes stand the test of time. This may be true. However, even though the clothes may seem dated and out of time, the music and story feels timeless.
I know it's only a rock 'n' roll film, and you might not necessarily love it, but you'll probably like it.
*** (3 stars)
Dir: Brett Morgan
Duration: 118 mins
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