Sometime in 1967, the Rolling Stones stopped playing the part of a dark, angry band on the edge and became one.
According to Keith Richards, the tipping point was his and Mick Jagger’s LSD arrest, arranged by one of the tabloids that would gleefully exploit the scandal.
“That was when we really put the black hat on,” a still-defiant Richards says.
His narration is plucked from the fresh, audio-only interviews conducted with the six surviving former and current Stones for “Crossfire Hurricane,” HBO’s new documentary about the band’s rise to prominence.
Crammed with classic and previously unseen archival footage, “Crossfire Hurricane” is more visceral cultural seminar than detail-laden term paper. With no distracting talking heads or cynical nods to later, lesser efforts, it’s a nifty, loose chronicle of the first 10 years of the group’s existence. But before the formative story of the lads in London is told, a ‘72-era Jagger in heavy eyeliner snorts powder off a switchblade before leading a menacing performance of “Street Fighting Man.”
Like its scholarly 1993 predecessor “25X5,” “Crossfire” sets the stage for its violent rock journey with clips of the five overwhelmed youngsters fielding odd questions, juxtaposed nicely with harrowing escapes from hordes of someday-hippies in horn-rims. The slightly scruffy, baby-faced guys carrying their guitar cases over train tracks don’t seem like they’re the dangerous kids at all.
They’d wanted to play blues covers in an “anti-showbiz” band. Instead, their manager, Andrew Oldham, turned them into the anti-Beatles, which came in handy when they got angry.
“It’s good to have an actor who can play the part,” Jagger says.
But as his lyrics became overtly political, the line between self-destructive persona and reality faded. The always-cool singer barely contains his rage during a deadpan explanation to a particularly dense journalist’s queries about “Satisfaction” _ what could young people be so unsatisfied with?
Movies about the Stones get bogged down in so many directions _ the drugs, the women, the money _ that the musicianship often gets lost. The Stones still lament going years without finishing a concert before chaos took over.
“Girls wet themselves when they get excited,” a droll Bill Wyman explains.
At a time when parents were supposedly terrified of the Stones’ influence on their children, those children were attacking at such a rate that fleeing from them was an accomplishment.
There was no easy getaway option a few years later at Altamont, the outdoor show that ended when a Hell’s Angel stabbed a man to death in front of the stage. Its shadow looms permanently over the Stones, San Francisco and the counterculture. That day, Dec. 6, 1969, is well-documented: It was being filmed for a concert movie that became “Gimme Shelter,” which lends new footage to “Crossfire Hurricane,” as does still photographer Robert Frank’s unprintably titled film about the ‘72 tour.
But unlike his predecessors, “Hurricane” director Brett Morgen renders the politically volatile past in vivid montages laid over a well-chosen soundtrack. If maniacally cheery commercials paired with “Satisfaction” seems a bit obvious, the rare live version of the song makes up for it. “Paint It Black” propels the brutal European riots that concerts often set off, and “Midnight Rambler” makes a disturbing backdrop for the only groupie-focused sequences.
Richards calls “Rambler” his quintessential collaboration with Jagger, the only song of theirs that couldn’t have been written by anyone else. One of the real treats of “Hurricane” is video of those obsessive, prolific songwriting sessions as the two mow through mountains of cigarettes in hotel rooms, planes and buses.
Later, it’s hard to imagine anyone maintaining a creative partnership with the dead-eyed guitarist as he skulks through a basement in the south of France and then narrowly avoids a life sentence for trafficking in Canada. That wake-up call, around the same time Ron Wood joined the band and became a stabilizing influence, helped save the Stones.
“Crossfire Hurricane” celebrates the Stones and their music, but it doesn’t glorify that deadly disease _ the band’s enabling, self-perpetuating image _ of which drugs were only a symptom.