Ostensibly a 50th anniversary celebration, the HBO documentary “Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge” — which airs tonight and Tuesday at 9 p.m. — arrives at an awkward time for the magazine and Jann Wenner, the founder/frontman with whom it will forever be inextricably associated. Along with much of the media world, Wenner’s empire has been in decline for several years and he recently put up his share of the company for sale; Rolling Stone’s retracted 2014 “Rape on Campus” article cost the company millions in legal costs and arguably more in prestige; and last month, “Sticky Fingers,” Joe Hagan’s authorized Wenner biography, was suddenly un-authorized by its subject, who described the final product, which does not shy away from details about Wenner’s sexuality, self-centeredness and at times heavy-handed editorial practices, as “deeply flawed and tawdry.”
In striking contrast, “Stories From the Edge,” which was directed by Oscar-winner Alex Gibney and Emmy-winner Blair Foster, presents the Wenner worldview — which isn’t shocking since he’s an executive producer and Rolling Stone Productions is one of the producing partners. Thus, in many ways it’s more of a supercharged anniversary issue than a documentary.
Which isn’t to say that large segments of the four-hour-long film, particularly the first half, aren’t quite entertaining. The doc dives right in, starting with the young Wenner, a 21-year-old college dropout from a wealthy family, launching the magazine in 1967 with his future wife, Jane Schindelheim, and his mentor, legendary critic Ralph Gleason. We’re shown the stark contrast between the world into which the magazine was launched (epitomized by TV shows like “Father Knows Best”) and the fast-rising counterculture it would soon represent (via the Monterey Pop Festival). “Music, and the cultural revolution that was attached to it — that was the uncovered story,” Wenner says.
The film dwells equally on the figures the magazine covered in its big early stories — John Lennon, the Grateful Dead, Ike and Tina Turner, groupie culture, Bruce Springsteen — with the writers and photographers who covered them, including Gleason, Baron Wolman, Annie Liebovitz, Jon Landau, Ben Fong-Torres, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Greil Marcus, P.J. O’Rourke, Cameron Crowe and others. While it soon became the megaphone for the music scene and the culture around it, Wenner had bigger plans, and efforts like Howard Kohn and David Weir’s exclusive inside report on Patty Hearst’s kidnappers, and its coverage of the 1972 presidential election and Nixon’s downfall (not to mention Wolfe and Thompson) helped Rolling Stone “replace Esquire as the home of new journalism,” Wenner boasts with some accuracy.
At the center of it all is the fresh-faced young man with the bushy hair, giant bell-bottoms and a series of ever-wider ties, whose undeniable brilliance as an editor and self-promoter led him and the magazine from “counter-culture” to the center of the culture to the establishment, all of which happened by the time the magazine relocated from San Francisco to New York in 1977.
The second half of the documentary, covering the magazine’s New York era, opens — completely unexpectedly — with a Chance the Rapper concert. But the reference becomes clear as he sings “We don’t do the same drugs no more” while wacky scenes from the old San Francisco headquarters — staffers pontificating atop tables, Hunter S. Thompson spraying a fire extinguisher into a conference room while Wenner scolds paternally — are intercut with footage from the slick, antiseptic New York office and the onset of the magazine’s Me Decades, the 1980s and ‘90s, and into the present day. This introductory segment ends with a painfully stiff recent edit meeting (“Lots of solid ideas here!,” Wenner enthuses), but a more telling detail is that the 10 staffers are clustered at one end of a conference-room table that was probably built to hold 50.
By the mid-1970s Rolling Stone had long since become the standard-bearer of the music establishment, and generally only covered new trends to indulge staffers (like punk for Charles Young) or when they became too big to ignore. The magazine’s painfully belated embrace of hip-hop — due to the social relevance of Public Enemy and Ice-T and gangsta rap — and the teen pop of Britney Spears and ‘Nsync both get long looks here, yet grunge, which was far more relevant to Rolling Stone’s audience, gets just a sidelong mention. The political coverage is heavy on the rise and fall of the religious right (particularly disgraced preacher Jimmy Swaggert) and the Clinton era: In a probably unintentional comic moment, Wenner and political reporter William Greider’s long mea culpa’s for buying into Clinton’s self-mythologizing segue directly into Wenner’s non-apology for putting teen pop acts on the cover (because they were so good for business).
The doc winds to its end on high and low notes. The former comes with the magazine’s last great reportorial hurrah, the late Michael Hastings’ brutally unguarded profile of “Runaway General” Stanley McChrystal, which saw the general and his staff mocking President Obama and ended up getting him fired; the doc points up how the magazine’s independence from the traditional news establishment allowed them to publish such a candid piece because they didn’t need further access.
The low is an appropriately self-damning look at Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s discredited article on a gang rape at the University of Virginia that apparently never happened. Yet even amid the atonement and spin about the “systems failure,” Wenner is burnished: former staffer Marianne Partridge recalls about pitching a story on rape in 1974 and he was the sole member of the otherwise all-male meeting to take her seriously; a later female staffer spins the magazine’s failure to fact-check the purported victim’s account by saying, “Being progressive men working at an antiauthoritarian magazine, they believed that they should not question women about cases of rape.” A grim final chapter on the 2016 election and the rise of Trump’s America closes with Wenner’s day-after interview with President Obama, and like him it tries hard to end on a positive note (if this document proves one thing, it’s that there’s a Dylan song for every imaginable occasion).
Yet the most revealing moment in these sprawling four hours may be an unintentional one. In it, Cameron Crowe, who famously wrote for the magazine as a teenager (and arguably told the definitive story of Rolling Stone story with his loosely autobiographical film, “Almost Famous”), recalls a mortifying lecture he received from Wenner after filing a long and hard-won interview with Led Zeppelin. “[Wenner] said, ‘Thank you, we’re gonna run the story — but you failed,’” he recalls. “‘You wrote what they wanted you to write. There’s nothing in that story that was you getting to the heart of what the real scene was: what it felt like, what it smelled like, what they meant at this time in history for people to read years from now. You don’t have that. You have them talking about themselves.’”
There’s plenty in “Stories From the Edge” that gets to the heart of what the real scene was. But ultimately, it’s four hours of them talking about themselves.