Saturday, November 24, 2012

In Fact, It’s a Gas: The Stones on Celluloid

“It’s about the time we were living in,” Mick Jagger contends offscreen in a new documentary, explaining why his band’s songs, stage persona and lifestyle spoke to the counterculture of the 1960s. But the time we’re living in now still seems linked to a Rolling Stones calendar, as the ensemble celebrates a half-century together. A contemporary tour begins in London on November 25 and 29, before hitting the U.S. in December. Crossfire Hurricane, which premiered on HBO this month, is a fascinating collection of archival footage periodically narrated by rock ‘n‘ rollers who’ve gone from anarchic youngsters to mischievous senior citizens before our very eyes and ears.

Jagger, the lead vocalist who remains an unparalleled master at shaking his skinny hips and pursing his bountiful lips during performances, notes in a long-ago television interview: “I can’t express myself in the right way when I’m satisfied.” Asked about the screaming teenagers who turned early Stones’ concerts into a contact sport – numerous snippets show them lunging at, tackling and toppling the musicians – he suggests “that shows dissatisfaction with something.” Quick cut to the propulsive “Paint It Black,” with various glimpses of boys fighting police outside Stones’ concerts around the globe.

Jagger & Richards outside London courthouse in 1967
Their first manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, dubbed them “the anti-Beatles,” a self-fulfilling prophesy in that he might as well have said "the anti-Christ." The establishment deemed them the embodiment of evil when Delta blues had yet to be joined by original compositions in the band’s repertoire. The press called them scruffy even when, in the beginning, these guys looked remarkably neat and fresh-faced by current standards. Candid moments in the film show them goofing around at the start of their collective career. (The humor is eventually embittered by sarcasm.) Jagger concedes he was approaching it all like “an actor playing a part.”

Nevertheless, the Rolling Stones tapped into genuine generational angst, framed in rage against 1950s complacency and conformity, that targeted the corporate mindset. This was best articulated by the satire of lyrics like “When I'm watchin' my TV/ and that man comes on to tell me/ how white my shirts can be/ But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke/ the same cigarettes as me...” Members of the group were messing with more than mere tobacco in their salad days, however.

Jagger & Richards in the Riviera in 1971
Crossfire Hurricane, directed by Brett Morgen with occasional overly frenetic editing, revisits much of the narcotics terrain covered by previous docs: The never-released but often bootlegged Cocksucker Blues is a 1972 cinema-verite excursion by Robert Frank. Stephen Kijack’s Stones in Exile (2010) chronicles the period just before that; Through much of 1971, those famous lads inhabited a cavernous estate in the South of France, where they indulged in booze, heroin and decadence rather than Riviera sunshine, all the while recording a signature album, Exile on Main Street.
By examining only the first two turbulent decades of the Rolling Stones phenomenon – bassist Bill Wyman was along for the ride from 1962 until 1993 and guitarist Mick Taylor from 1969 to 1974 – Morgen spans two busts. The first, a nightmarish 1967 police raid after Jagger and guitar wizard Keith Richards enjoyed an idyllic London acid trip, got them a brief stint in jail. Ten years later, an encounter with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police took place in Toronto and apparently convinced junkie Richards to finally kick his habit.

If so, maybe he’s not destined to become a statistic, the way irrevocably addicted guitarist Brian Jones did in July 1969. His demise seems preordained in an emotional Crossfire Hurricane recording session. “No Expectations” is a Jagger/Richards melody on which he plays an acoustic slide guitar riff that serves as a grace note. The melody is an unwitting message of farewell: ”But never in my sweet short life/ have I felt like this before...”

The tragic drowning death of Jones presaged other doom. Five months later, in December, an outdoor California concert at the Altamont Speedway engendered chaotic violence. Morgen compiles a startling montage that captures the bad vibes, with much material borrowed from Gimme Shelter, a legendary 1970 film by brothers Albert and David Maysles. Then came the lower depths of the French sojourn, detailed in the 2008 Robert Greenfield book Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones. (It was the basis for that 2010 Kijack non-fiction movie and, in 2012, has been snapped up by Virgin mogul Richard Branson for a future dramatized version.)

But this is a band that symbolically embraced hell, along with the obligatory sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. “Sympathy for the Devil” delivers a pungent lesson on the history of humankind in six minutes and 18 seconds. Who’s to blame for the mess we’re in? After all, it is you and me. While singing the infernal anthem in a Crossfire Hurricane scene from way-back-when, Jagger reveals an enormous tattoo of Satan on his chest. For Martin Scorsese’s Stones-centric and highly theatrical Shine a Light (2008), the singer-songwriter emerges behind the New York audience from a door that appears to provide a glimpse of the burning underworld.

Crossfire hurricane is a term taken from the 1968 song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” which became the title of a 1986 comic thriller starring Whoopi Goldberg as an ordinary American caught up in international espionage. In one hilarious bit before the arrival of Google, unable to decipher a possible coded message as the vinyl album spins on her turntable, she shouts: “Mick! Mick! Mick! Speak English!” The purgatory of a British accent at 33&1/3 revolutions per minute.

Jagger, Richards, drummer Charlie Watts and guitarist Ronnie Wood may be wrinkled elders but some things never change in this hell on Earth. On the plus side, their energy is astonishing. Less encouraging: Greed, corruption, poverty and war continue. And, to this day, when we’re watchin’ our TV, men – and women – come on to tell us how white our shirts can be. So, given the time we’re living in, there are manifold reasons for any Stones’ fan to feel they can’t get no satisfaction.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion

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