There’s been the little-seen “Charlie Is My Darling” and “Cocksucker Blues,” Jean-Luc Godard’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” 1970’s Altamont-focused “Gimme Shelter,” Julien Temple’s “Stones at the Max” and Martin Scorsese’s “Shine a Light,” and that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to documentaries that have put “the world’s greatest rock and roll band,” The Rolling Stones, up on the big screen. For a band who are celebrating their 50th anniversary perhaps that’s to be expected, but it leaves "Crossfire Hurricane" (the official celebration of said anniversary) with the onerous task of having to tell a story that has been well documented many times before. But this isn’t a comprehensive exploration of the band’s 50 year history. In fact, it barely covers the first twenty years – the years when the band was still a band rather than a business. And as for comprehensive, well it’s not really that either. It’s a surface-level whistle-stop tour through the defining moments of the band’s early history, with director Brett Morgan ("The Kid Stays in the Picture") exploring the idea of what it must have been like to be a Rolling Stone in those early years.
He does so by putting together an array of archive footage (most of which seems to have been sourced from those other aforementioned Stones documentaries) with the fresh twist of the present-day band members (and former band members) speaking in voiceover about what they can remember of those events. As you’d expect from the kind of lifestyle they’ve led, their memories are hazy at best, and also they’re the memories of men who also happen to be producers/executive producers who are constructing the kind of image of the band that they want to create.
Still, that doesn’t mean "Crossfire Hurriance" is a wholly dull affair, and it’s not as if anyone holds back. It’s just that this is the story that they want to tell. That the story cuts off before the band’s fallow period full of infighting and inferior records is testament to that. But that doesn’t make the stories they do have to tell any less fascinating, we are talking about The Rolling Stones after all. There are fascinating exchanges about the way the band were positioned as the Anti-Beatles, and the way that the band themselves and the media played their part in solidifying that image. Keith Richards raises a smile when he speaks of the aftermath of his and Mick Jagger’s first drugs arrest as the turning point in the band really embodying that image: “That’s when you really put the black hat on…before it was just off-gray.”
Of course their ill-fated Altamont concert at the end of their “hedonistic binge around America” remains a harrowing and evocative event to revisit, as does the exit from the band and subsequent death of guitarist Brian Jones. It’s a shame that less time can’t be spent reflecting on those events, especially with the amount of screen time devoted to the sex and drugs and rock and roll, but that doesn’t diminish the emotional weight they carry. When Jagger’s struggling to remember how many months after they asked Jones to leave the band it was that Jones was found dead, someone interrupts to tell him, “It was two weeks Mick.” “Fuck,” Jagger responds, and you can tell it still hurts.
So yes, "Crossfire Hurricane" isn’t a complete write-off, and it’s probably a great introduction for newcomers unfamiliar with the history of the band. Who are those people though? Is there really a generation who don’t know much about The Rolling Stones but are also eager to get into a band who their parents liked when they were young? No, the film’s target audience is going to be long-time fans looking for a nostalgia trip, and they’ll get little more than a reminder of what they’ve seen before.
One can’t help but suspect this documentary is yet another cog in the band’s money-making machine, little more than an extended trailer for the upcoming tour and yet another greatest hits album. If you really have to celebrate a 50th anniversary of a British institution on the big screen in 2012, choose James Bond instead – he still has something to offer. [C-]