The Stones' wild ride

The Stones - Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, and Ronnie Wood - adopted a rebel image.
The Stones - Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger, and Ronnie Wood - adopted a rebel image. (Archive /Courtesy of HBO)

Documentary looks at band's evolution.

Posted: November 15, 2012

We tend to think that our cultural icons arrive fully formed. We forget how much thought and work goes into becoming a legend.

Crossfire Hurricane is about the early image-molding of the Rolling Stones.

Of course tonight's HBO documentary (9 p.m.) also works exceedingly well if you're a fan of the band, love rock music, or just get off on the seedier side of spectacle.

But since the subtitle is The Rise of the Stones, let's consider the film first as creation story.

Directed and written by Brett ( The Kid Stays in the Picture) Morgen, Crossfire Hurricane opens with the band at the height of their decadent and defiant renown, at the Madison Square Garden stops of the 1972 S.T.P. Tour.

The dressing room is crammed with scenesters like Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. Mick Jagger, sheathed in his brilliant white jumpsuit, is sniffing coke off a switchblade before taking the stage in front of a delirious crowd.

Then we step back a decade to see how we got to rock-and-roll Sodom.

Back in their rather innocent beginnings, the Rolling Stones were a British band trying to carve out an identity covering American blues tunes.

Charlie Watts and Keith Richards are practically inarticulate with the press. A fresh-faced Jagger is incredibly charming. At this stage, he looks very much like tousle-haired Harry Styles, the sparkliest member of One Direction.

For the first few years, it was teen frenzy of the sort captured in A Hard Day's Night. Shows ended abruptly when the crowd stormed the stage, and elaborate escape routes from the venues were preplanned.

As Richards recalls, "You stayed there until you got besieged, and then you did a runner."

According to the film, it was the Stones' early manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who decided the path to success for them would be as the "anti-Beatles" - more dangerous, more rough-and-tumble. It was a role that the band assumed with growing swagger and authenticity.

"You're thrust into the limelight in a youth-orientated thing," reflects Jagger. (Most of the narrative is made up of band-member interviews conducted for the film.) "It's not about growing up. It's about not growing up in a way. Then it's about bad behavior. Then you're about bad behavior. Then you start behaving badly."

In other words, the advent of the druggy years and the police busts, which only burnishes their rebel reputation. "It was Jesse James times," says Richards, with the phlegmy chuckle that punctuates most of his observations.

Quick as you can say "Paint it black," it's hard to tell the riot footage from the concert footage.

The Stones cannily used their music to stoke their image, right up to the supremely provocative "Sympathy for the Devil."

Not into mythmaking? Crossfire Hurricane is deeply enjoyable for the songs - from "She's a Rainbow" to "Brown Sugar" - and for the extraordinary trove of archival film it has assembled.

There are wonderful sequences here, such as watching Keith and Mick during their earliest writing sessions, roughing out "Tell Me" and "Sittin' on a Fence."

And there's a touching eulogy for Brian Jones set to "No Expectations" (his final significant musical contribution to the band) and "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Harder to watch is an extended trip back to the Stones' tragic show at the Altamont festival in 1969, footage more graphic than that seen in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter.

It boggles the mind that the Stones, who always seemed to be dancing on the edge of the precipice, should outlast and outdo all their contemporaries from the original British Invasion.

As the band marks its 50th anniversary, Crossfire Hurricane is a vivid reminder of just how essential, influential, and deliberate they have been.


Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552, dhiltbrand@ phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv.

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