Very few men can work a front-lacing skin-tight jumpsuit. Certainly not without getting their nipples caught or their beer gut stretching the satinet unbecomingly. Or, indeed, without the ensemble suggesting an accident in a sausage factory.
Early on in My Life As a Rolling Stone (BBC Two) we see Mick Jagger before a 1970s gig, tightening the laces on his jumpsuit across his chest – snake hipped, underwear (if worn) invisible, genitals only tantalisingly visible. Jagger in his pomp not only looked good but typified the gender-fluid carnivalesque liberation of dressing up championed by queer theorists and, according to the voiceover, something else.
“He projects the wild animal that’s in all of us,” says record producer Don Was, one of the many musicians contributing their thoughts, if that’s not too strong a word. “We celebrate the true nature of the human being when we look at Mick Jagger.”
Do we? I’m not so sure. It sounds, not just like problematically heteronormative essentialism, but also the kind of mythological hokum that Jagger himself says has dogged the Stones in their 60 years at the coal face of rock’n’roll.
“What most documentaries do,” says Sir Mick at the outset, “is repeat the same mythology over and over.” He hopes this one is going to do otherwise. It doesn’t. Right after Jagger indicts what documentaries do, this documentary does it once more with such a cataclysm of cliches that for a moment I hope the writer is having us on.
It’s Sienna Miller I feel sorry for. As narrator, she has to make the tendentious sound incontrovertible and airy nothings seem significant. “The Rolling Stones are the ultimate rock’n’roll band,” Miller tells us, as though saying it will make it so. “They set the benchmark for what the rock’n’roll band sounds like, looks like,” she says, her voice descending to hit the next word mock-sensually, “feels like.” It’s debatable and, towards the end, turns into gibberish. “They’re a link,” she adds, “between the counterculture of the 60s and the commercial modern world.”
That last is a thought that, if it is to mean anything, needs unpacking. Yes, the Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham branded them as bad-boy antidotes to the more respectable image that Brian Epstein cultivated for the Beatles. And yes, Jagger did play up to the silliness surrounding the Stones with Sympathy for the Devil. And, true, Street Fighting Man does argue for the antinomian spirit of the late-60s zeitgeist. And the Stones’ tongue and lips symbol, devised by art student John Pasche, indicated how the band, like corporate giants Shell and latterly Apple, cleverly branded themselves with wordless iconography.
But the problem with My Life As a Rolling Stone is that having made such assertions, instead of backing them up, it falls back into the tropes Sir Mick disdains.
The result is a plod – a hagiographic plod. We gather neither moss nor insight as we roll past the usual way stations in the Stones’ career: Mick and Keef’s drug bust, Brian Jones’s death, a Hells Angels bouncer killing a concert-goer at Altamont.
In 2022, we need a deeper dive than this. The Rolling Stones are ripe for critical reappraisal. The band surely know the time is up for their sexist and racist excesses, not least because only last year, they wisely withdrew their 1971 hit Brown Sugar from their US tour set list. You have to wonder why it took so long. After a peerless guitar intro, Jagger strikes up thus: “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans / Scarred old slaver know he’s doin’ all right / Hear him whip the women, just around midnight.” It’s as if the song were by not Jagger and Richards but the songwriting duo Edward Colston and Harvey Weinstein.
To fail to address such questions is a missed opportunity not least because Jagger is clearly articulate and not so caught up in his own myth as to be unable to think self-critically. But this is a documentary more interesting for what it leaves out. We get a sketchy account of Mick’s suburban Dartford years, nothing about his family, negligible insight into his pioneering androgyny. We get far too little on Jagger as postmodern appropriator of African American music, though given how ready he is to acknowledge that without Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Willie Dixon and many more he would have been nothing, he would have been surely thoughtful on that theme if only nudged in that direction. Bernard Fowler, the longtime African American singer with the Stones, tells us that off stage Jagger sounds like an English gent, on stage like a black man from the deep south. Does he really? I wanted more insight into that, and on where the laced-up camp jumpsuit figures in that persona.
Instead of anything revelatory or reflective, we get the same old stuff. I’m not sure which contributor says “Chemistry is something you can’t buy”, but I wish they hadn’t. The Stones may be in their dotage but the rock doc, if this is anything to go by, is scarcely out of its infancy.
• This article was amended on 4 July 2022. An earlier version referred to “Hells Angels bouncers killing four at Altamont”; in fact one person was fatally stabbed at the concert by a Hells Angel bouncer, who was later acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defence. And the lyrics of Brown Sugar refer to a “scarred old slaver”, not a “skydog slaver”.