Crossfire Hurricane - review

Latest Rolling Stones documentary has to tackle the problem of how to retell a story that's been told so many times before

For all the control freakery, the money chasing, the internecine warfare between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones have always been the most open of groups – as Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant told the Guardian recently: "All you knew was that the Stones got all the press, and we sold a shitload of records."

That leaves Crossfire Hurricane, the official documentary celebration of the Stones' 50th anniversary, with two problems. How do you retell a story that's been told so many times before? And how do you compete with the already extant films about the group – Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers' account of the 1969 US tour that ended with the disastrous Altamont concert; Cocksucker Blues, the rarely seen Robert Frank film that captured their 1972 tour, warts, needles, pills and all; and especially the peerless 25x5, the career-spanning biography first shown on BBC2 in 1989?

Director Brett Morgen's answer is to try to show what it was like being a Stone, using the voices of the group – including those who have departed – as an unseen offstage chorus, commenting on the archive footage we are watching. So film of teenage girls invading stages in the mid-1960s is accompanied by a mordant Bill Wyman explaining how "I could see the water flowing between the seats … it was a flood of urine." But he – and doubtless the band, given that Jagger is a producer and the other three are executive producers – care not for what it means to be a Rolling Stone now, when Richards can blithely announce that a payment of £16m for four shows next month "sounds about right".

By showing us the group only as young men, the film invites us to buy into the myth of a band of brothers, fighting against the world. That it is a myth is revealed by Jagger, explaining how the group were positioned by Andrew Loog Oldham, their first manager, as the anti-Beatles, the darkness to the Liverpudlians' light, and how being bad then became a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to the 1967 arrest of Jagger and Richards on drug charges.

That "cemented our relationship with the public," Jagger suggests, while Richards claims: "They gave me a licence … That was when we really put the black hat on. Before that it was off-grey."

Richards, always, is the romantic of the group, publicly at least; Jagger the realist. Hence, when the guitarist talks about fleeing England for fear of the law in the early 1970s, Jagger's voice quickly counters: "Keith always says he was chased out of England by the cops. He may believe that but it's not actually true. The band left because of money."

Crossfire Hurricane is at its strongest tracing the period of the band's greatness, from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. Footage from those other films is used judiciously, so one gets a sense of what the great travelling circus of the 1972 tour was like from excerpts from Cocksucker Blues, and just a few minutes of Gimme Shelter is necessary to paint Altamont – at which 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was murdered by the Hells Angels hired to provide security – as a rock'n'roll update of Bruegel's The Triumph of Death.

Oddly, for a film intended to mark 50 years of the group, Crossfire Hurricane treats the Stones' career as having to all intents and purposes ended as the 1970s drifted into the 80s. Richards' 1977 arrest for heroin possession in Toronto is the last significant event discussed, and the band members note how this was the period in which they went from being the group everyone hated to the one everyone loved. The last thing we see before the closing credits roll is aerial footage of the 1981 Still Life tour. In a way, it's entirely accurate: from this point, the Stones became little more than a money-making machine, dragged round the world every couple of years on the back of increasingly dismal albums.

Now, there's no doubt if you want to make a film celebrating The World's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band, cutting off 30 years ago is the right thing to do. Especially if they're the ones paying for it. But how much more fascinating Crossfire Hurricane might have been had it told the story of the years since, of Jagger and Richards at each other's throats, of the band trying and failing to once more rebottle the lightning of their first two decades, of how one's identity changes as one is redefined in the public mind from moral threat to national treasure.

In its own way, Crossfire Hurricane is just like one of those Stones albums of the last three decades: it's fun, it has terrific moments, but in the end it pales in comparison with earlier triumphs.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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