Sunday, December 17, 2017

To Gather No Moss: Alex Gibney and Blair Foster's Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge

You're likely to be disappointed by Alex Gibney and Blair Foster's two-part four-hour HBO documentary Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge if you're expecting a thorough exposé that trolls through the pop culture magazine's turbulent fifty-year history. For instance, you won't find much of a nuanced portrait of its boy-wonder founder, editor and publisher, Jann Wenner, when they parse through his struggles with sexuality and drugs. They avoid entirely the paradoxical life of Wenner, whose contradictory impulses – both personally and professionally – came to shape the personality of the magazine for half a century. Since the documentary was made under Wenner's aegis, Gibney and Foster also stay pretty clear of addressing directly the popular perception that Rolling Stone Magazine may have begun as an avatar of the counter-culture in 1968, but eventually it became yet another celebrity journal for aspiring yuppies.Yet even if Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge skirts some of the more complex dimensions built into Jann Wenner, and the turbulent direction the magazine would take in its long history, Gibney and Foster don't whitewash their subject either. “[Rolling Stone is] not just about music, but also the things and attitudes that the music embraces,” wrote Wenner earnestly in an editorial published in the debut issue to define its promise. Yet the film recognizes that promises can't always be kept, especially if the culture itself changes in ways you can't possibly predict. So Rolling Stone is currently up for sale, perhaps recognizing that its potent synergy with popular culture is now gone. In light of this coming event, Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge decides to look back at some of the key stories the magazine covered over its fifty years, along with the writers who penned them, to see if (despite the changing tenor of the times and the journal that chronicled those changes) they still managed to live up to their promise.

Joe Hagan's recent biography of Jann Wenner, Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, which Devin McKinney reviewed for Critics at Large last week, tries to balance the story by addressing the publisher's own obsessions with celebrity that changed Rolling Stone for the worst, but Hagan's effort is tainted by his disdain for its subject. Rather than providing a compelling view through which we could perceive Wenner's singular genius for gathering a pool of talent that would carry Rolling Stone through the decades, despite the personal demons that worked against him, Hagan chronicles with a growing redundancy the means by which Wenner betrayed his staff, his readers, his wife, his business partners – and, of course, ultimately himself. There's so little of Wenner's unrelenting drive as a journalist in the book that the list of his endless bacchanals and betrayals seems to have been his only purpose and goal for the magazine. (In Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge, critic Greil Marcus talks of meeting Jann Wenner in Berkeley in 1964 and finds himself intrigued rather than offended that Wenner could find equal joy in listening to the hip sounds of Mose Allison while also treasuring The San Francisco Chronicle's double-paged spread of the current crop of debutantes. “I was a little taken aback by the combination of the hipster and the society wannabe,” Marcus recalls. “But I liked him. He was so full of personality.”) Instead of trashing Wenner with a typical and conventional tabloid prurience, Hagan builds his tiring biography on broken bricks. He hangs his hat on the worn cliché of the powerful, talented man who gets corrupted by fame and celebrity and couldn't live up to some higher calling. Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge remedies that limited perspective by concentrating on the quality of the content down the years as the culture continually made new demands on the journal, the writers, and the publisher.

Jann Wenner

The documentary opens with Jimi Hendrix prancing about the stage of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival like some polymorphous prophet bathed in bright colours as he offers up Bob Dylan's titanic "Like a Rolling Stone," a song from which the magazine mostly took its name, as a covenant to the audience that spoke of good tidings and delectable pleasures to come. While up the coast in San Francisco, perhaps the most bohemian of American cities, Jann Wenner decided to seize upon this cross-pollination of rock and roll, politics, fashion and hallucinogens that was bringing forth a cultural revolution in the Bay Area. “The important thing about San Francisco is that it's a scene,” he told a reporter in 1968. “It's a warm, supportive friendly city that historically had the bohemians, the Beats, that supported the arts, poetry, jazz and similarly today supports rock and roll.” While Wenner didn't see himself ever making it as a rock star, his acumen as a journalist and his instinct for recognizing zeitgeist moments was first stoked a few years earlier by his coverage of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley for The Daily Californian. Inspired by an opposition to the Vietnam War and a struggle for civil rights, the Free Speech Movement in 1964 resisted the University of California's ban on campus political activities. One of the movement's key followers, Mario Savio, helped organize a student strike to refute that policy and ultimately, in a famous speech, he inspired that group to close the university. Wenner was not only floored by the impact of Savio's speech, which spoke of students putting their bodies to the gears of the machine and making it stop, but he was also caught up in the moment as a chronicler of a key historical moment. “I found myself feeling both sides of it,” Wenner recalls in telling the filmmakers of his role as both journalist and witness.

Being transformed both personally and professionally by the events in Berkeley, Wenner started Rolling Stone Magazine in 1967 with prominent jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason, who not only was seeped in that formative American art form but was also open to the percolating sounds of the emerging pop revolution. Gibney and Foster steer clear of unearthing the conflicts that would lead to the parting of ways for Wenner and Gleason by 1975 (which had to do with the direction towards celebrity content in the magazine), but they nevertheless seize upon stories ripe for examination, many of which are surprising (the rise of rock groupies, Tina Turner, the Pulitzer trial), while avoiding perhaps some of the obvious (Woodstock, Altamont, Karen Silkwood). But rather than provide their own commentary on the worth of each story, the filmmakers let the original writer speak for each piece and its time – and usually in the present but without being shown as a talking head looking back nostalgically. Gibney and Foster also include voice-overs (actor Jeff Daniels providing many of them) of excerpts from the articles with occasional tape heard from the original interview while we scan the copy of the written piece on the screen. As he did so skillfully in Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, Alex Gibney finds innovative approaches to impressionistic filmmaking that bring out the distilled essence of his subject so that we can arrive at our own conclusions about the meaning and worth of what he is depicting. In the Frank Sinatra documentary, Gibney even collapsed time by editing together recollections by the artist from over periods of time in order to magically create a single perspective. The technique here serves to put the material to the test as if we're to discern whether the work continues to retain the power (or relevance) it had then.

(l to r, Jann Wenner, Blair Foster and Alex Gibney)

Some of the stories prove more captivating than others, yet there is always an angle on them that reveals something of the sensibility of the writer who created it. Photographer Baron Wolman, using a keen voyeur's eye rather than a leering one, is able to capture with a detached curiosity the emergence of the sexual freedom of young women who actively set out to fuck pop stars. An enterprising young woman who called herself Cynthia Plaster-Caster went one step further and become a traveling sculptor casting the erect penises of various touring musicians into a series of miniature statues she would later turn into a touring exhibition. (Jimi Hendrix apparently became so excited by the glop itself that he ended up fucking the mold.) Writer Ben Fong-Torres, with the assistance of budding photographer Annie Leibovitz, provides a portrait of Ike and Tina Turner that not only digs into their artistic power, but also hints of the turbulent and violent abuse by Ike that would soon tear their marriage and musical partnership apart. Wenner idolized John Lennon, and we see evidence of that worship in the film's coverage of the revealing "Lennon Remembers" interview in 1970, after The Beatles had broken up and he had gone through primal therapy with Arthur Janov. We see it as well in a later touching sequence with Wenner and Annie Leibovitz wistfully going over her photographs of John and Yoko Ono taken shortly before his murder in 1980. But Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge fails to tells us that Wenner fell out with the former Beatle years earlier by turning the 1970 epic interview into a best selling book against Lennon's wishes.

While the documentary does examine Rolling Stone's shift towards celebrity journalism, it does so mostly in the form of Cameron Crowe (one of the few writers seen on screen) whose fan-boy enthusiasm is tempered by a sweet capability to reflect candidly on it. His story of meeting Wenner over a fawning piece he wrote on Led Zeppelin, when the editor showed him what it takes to be a true journalist, is one of the highlights of the movie. So are moments where we see Wenner relent to tastes in music he doesn't share with his writers, such as Mikal Gilmore on The Clash, or Charles M. Young on the emergence of punk, but affords their views freedom. Sometimes, however, the same couldn't be said if critics took on Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones. And Wenner's distaste for rap was confronted by writer Alan Light, who began writing about U2 and Neil Young but felt that in the early nineties, hip-hop and rap represented the most vital music. “In 1992, a lot of people still looked at hip-hop as an outsider genre, which felt crazy,” Light tells Gibney and Foster. “That was like covering jazz in the forties when be-bop happened, or covering rock and roll in the sixties; you knew that every day the most creative force was happening and you were watching the world changing around you.” That world change was inescapable by the time of the 1992 LA riots, which took place right after the release of Public Enemy's incendiary “By the Time I Get to Arizona” (which was only aired once on MTV), and of the later acquittal of the officers who had beaten Rodney King, followed shortly after by Ice-T's controversial hit “Cop Killer.” Rolling Stone had moved to New York many years earlier and Light wanted to bring the magazine back to its West Coast roots. “In the eighties, hip-hop was an East Coast thing [and] nobody had written about urban LA gang culture, nobody had written about the violence in Los Angeles,” Light explains. In this section of the film, when Ice-T talks about the value of free speech, he reminds you (in these days of such uncertainty) exactly what it is, why it's vital, and what the cost is in protecting it. If anyone has doubts that Rolling Stone had stopped courting controversy by the nineties, this story justifies the use of the word "edge" in the film's title.

While Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge may be a little too worshipful of the contributions of Hunter S. Thompson to the political cachet of the magazine, there's no question that his early work on the 1972 Presidential campaign and his portrait of Richard Nixon are still scabrously brilliant – political reporting at its most potently acerbic. His successor, William Greider, may have been less mercurial than Thompson, but he possessed some of the grassroots leftist leanings that would later fuel Bernie Sanders's campaign. Curiously, he would also come to prominence by challenging the Clintons. When Bill was running for office, Greider immediately distrusted the direction in which he was taking the Democratic Party. “Clinton was essentially abandoning organized labour and working people,” he tells Gibney and Foster. “It happened literally in the first year of the administration and that was a double-cross of the values he expressed as a young candidate.” By the time Greider comes to interview him, after he's elected president, we hear an explosive side of Clinton when the writer refuses to be seduced by his charm. “He's good at it. But after everything else, I'm a reporter,” Greider explains. When he asks Clinton what he would stand up and die for, the president flies into a rage as if his idealism had been unfairly impugned. “You get no credit around here for fighting and bleeding,” Clinton is heard on tape screaming at Greider. “And that's why the know-nothings and the do-nothings and the negative people and the right-wingers always win. Because of the way people like you put questions to people like me.” Even when Barack Obama became president, it didn't stop Rolling Stone from courting controversy when they commissioned journalist Michael Hastings (who idolized Hunter Thompson) to write a controversial story on General Stanley McChrystal, who was then the top U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, until he called into question the policies of Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden and was soon relieved of duty. What Hastings, who was later killed in a car accident, did according to his widow, journalist Elise Jordan, was break “an unspoken code of putting military leaders on a pedestal and by stripping off that veneer he got so much flack.” The documentary takes each story – whether it's the rise and fall of pop singer Britney Spears or that of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart – and gives us a penetrating glimpse into the reporter's strong desire and need for covering it.

Even when the film concludes with the more recent fiasco of Sabrina Rubin Erdely's 2014 false story of a campus gang rape on the grounds of the University of Virginia, Gibney and Foster rightly examine it as a failure of journalism rather than a question of the journalist's disingenuousness. Besides the irony that Erdely, whose work usually centered on folks who did bad things and deceived other people, became a casualty of deception (the rape victim turned out to have made up the whole story), the wheels fall off when the editors fail to do their due diligence in properly vetting it. (Erdely also followed the lead of her source rather than doing any follow-up interviews with the accused men and others who could have provided evidence that the assault never happened.) While Erdely refused to be interviewed for the documentary, managing editor Will Dana did talk to the filmmakers and takes full responsibility for the magazine's failure to get the story right. Jann Wenner also welcomed an investigation into the piece by the Columbia School of Journalism, which he would later publish. What they found was “an environment where journalists with decades of collective experience failed to bring up and debate problems about their reporting or heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.”

While Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge doesn't have the penetrating insights of Gibney's Going Clear, where our views of Scientology gradually deepen with horror and stupefaction, or the imaginative scope of Sinatra: All or Nothing at All and his Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown, it's still a solid piece of work that successfully shows how Rolling Stone attempted to gather no moss. The magazine may never again provide a useful barometer for what continues to brew and stew in popular culture, but Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge provides a dependable map of the bumpy road it often takes to get it right.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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