“You can’t be young forever,” says Mick Jagger ruefully at the end of “Crossfire Hurricane,” but at least the multimillionaire rock star can take some comfort from the fact that his glory days were documented so thoroughly. This tribute to the Rolling Stones offers a blizzard of archive material nimbly sutured together with interviews with the Stones themselves, making this a succinct, officially sanctioned but not necessarily fawning history of the band. Docu was beamed into cinemas in select territories simultaneously with its premiere at the London Film Fest on Oct. 18 and should have strong fan appeal in ancillary.
Although the pic progresses chronologically through the beat combo’s history, there’s more emphasis on its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, when the Stones were the very definition of anti-establishment hipster cool, rather than on their stadium-rock years from the 1980s to the present. Helmer Brett Morgen’s resume amply qualifies him to tackle that early period after “Chicago 10,” his fine documentary on the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, while his Robert Evans bio “The Kid Stays in the Picture” shows his experience dealing with larger-than-life showbiz characters.
With a sure-handed assist from editors Conor O’Neill and Stuart Levy (who edited “Chicago 10” but has a strong filmography as a sound editor, especially helpful here), the pic knows when to let concert footage unspool untouched and when to sex things up with a bit of montage as the songs play on in the background. That said, the matching of lyrics and imagery is occasionally too on the nose, as when a shot of Robert F. Kennedy is thrown up to illustrate the line “Who killed the Kennedys?” Nevertheless, the cutting on the beats is rendered with admirable precision in a way that enhances the songs every time.
The images are drawn from an impressively diverse range of sources, including rare interview snippets with late founder/member Brian Jones; footage of Jagger smiling bemusedly on a talkshow as an intellectual pretentiously discusses the primal fascination of the band; and a delicious clip of drummer Charlie Watts being typically taciturn. However, there’s little here that the average rabid Stones fan won’t have seen before, if he or she’s tracked down such seminal docus as “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968), “Gimme Shelter” (1970), the officially unreleased but still-obtainable “Cocksucker Blues” (1972), and more recently “Shine a Light” (2008) and “Stones in Exile” (2010). Auds less well versed in the canon Stones footage are likely to feel more thrilled by the rarely seen glimpses of hyper-hedonism, such as Jagger sniffing coke off a knife backstage (excerpted from “Cocksucker Blues”).
The opening onscreen titles explain that the surviving members of the Rolling Stones, most of whom are producers or exec producers on this, chose for the purposes of this film to have their interviews recorded on audio only. The upside of this is that the band members, perhaps freed from concerns about how they look, talk a bit more freely and expansively than they often do, most interestingly of all about what it felt like to be the focus of so much hysteria in the early years (urine would run down the aisles of the auditoriums because so many girls were wetting themselves, one member vividly recalls), and about their songwriting and the musical chemistry between them. The focus is very much on the group itself rather than the extended skein of their complex lovelives and other collaborators. An added bonus is the pic’s relatively rare interview with Mick Taylor, guitarist from 1969-74, talking frankly about why he left the group.
Hardcore music buffs, however, may feel left wanting more, especially since single-album docus like Spike Lee’s recent “Bad 25” and Blighty’s “Classic Albums” series have offered much richer, musicological explorations of the art of noise. Likewise, compared with Martin Scorsese’s exhaustive docus about Bob Dylan and George Harrison, “Crossfire” feels almost too brisk and workmanlike. But like a good concert, it ably balances major hits, back-catalogue oddities and plenty of showmanship.