By Chaz Lipp
The thing I love most about Crossfire Hurricane, Brett Morgen’s documentary about The Rolling Stones, is that it doesn’t feel at all like a Behind the Music type special. Much closer in tone to The Beatles Anthology, though somehow more raw and honest feeling, Hurricane largely eschews self-congratulatory glad-handing. Sure, it’s an in-house production (co-produced by Mick Jagger and executive produced by Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ron Wood) that casts the band as survivors of rock and roll excess, persevering for 50 years despite the ever-changing popular music landscape. Those aren’t boasts though, they’re just the facts. The Stones have earned the right to acknowledge it while telling their own story, which also includes candid reflections on the substance abuse that claimed the life of one member and severely hampered the band’s ability to function at various points.
Unlike the aforementioned Beatles’ documentary, however, Hurricane compresses a spralling story down to just under two hours. This has its pros and cons. There’s enough rare and previously unseen material here to make it absolutely essential for hardcore fans. Though not fixated on dates, album names, chart placements, or really any other specifics, their story is sufficiently outlined (at least from the early ‘60s to the late ‘70s) for even the most casual fan. But much of it plays like a tease, since the various concert and behind-the-scenes archival footage promises that there’s no shortage of awesome material still in the vaults. Also unlike what the surviving Beatles did in Anthology, there’s no contemporary visuals of the Stones. A decision was made by director Morgen (and presumably the band members themselves) to record new audio interviews only. There are no jarring juxtapositions between the youthful, relatively fresh-faced Stones and their current appearance.
But, of course, we hear the age in their voices, especially Richards. In addition to the current four-piece lineup, we hear recent recollections from former longtime bassist Bill Wyman and also former guitarist (from 1969-74) Mick Taylor. There’s sort of an all-killer, no-filler aesthetic at work here as the carefully selected concert, interview, and fly-on-the-wall footage seems to capture the essence of the band’s appeal. The first act focuses on the Brian Jones era, including some poignant memories of the founding bandleader’s untimely demise. The second section, the Mick Taylor era, includes some footage and outtake material from the Maysles brothers’ Altamont documentary, Gimme Shelter. The coverage of the ill-fated free concert (during which an audience member was murdered) also features some interesting contemporary commentary.
Finally, the last (and shortest) section looks at the Ron Wood era. The story kind of wraps up with Some Girls and its support tour, pretty much ignoring the following 35 years or so. This can easily be seen as a weakness, but telling the whole story would require at least one more (if not two) films this length. The period covered does indicate that the Stones themselves seem to more or less agree with the general perception that 1963-78 covers the band’s irrefutable prime and peak period of influence. By that point, they became an institution. They would go on to release a lot more good music and play many more good shows, but Crossfire Hurricane covers the earth-shaking period during which their most indispensable albums and singles were released.
Much like The Beatles Anthology, there isn’t much room here for context. We see the Stones’ story from inside their particularly insulated bubble. It’s hard to imagine it being any other way. Other people can wax philosophical about the band’s influence. What we get here is a series of exhilarating snapshots documenting the best years of one of popular music’s best bands.
As can only be expected from a documentary sourced from a wide variety of vintage material, Eagle Rock Entertainment’s Crossfire Hurricane Blu-ray offers an audio/visual mixed bag. What’s important to note, however, is that no matter where the footage came from (old black-and-white TV broadcasts, amateur-shot small gauge film, sterling 35mm footage, standard definition video), the transfer presents it flawlessly. Any scratches, blemishes, or other artifacts are inherent in the decades-old material, not in the 1080p transfer. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack doesn’t offer too many surprises, but the music sounds terrific and the voiceovers are clear and resonant.
Eagle Rock has issued several tremendous Rolling Stones Blu-rays in recent years, including Ladies & Gentleman… The Rolling Stones (the best currently available Stones concert film, shot in ’72) and Some Girls: Live in Texas ‘78. We see clips from those shows in Hurricane, but they deserve to been seen in full. What is included here in terms of supplements are a handful of very early performances taken from television broadcasts. There are two from ’64 and two from ’65, for a total of nine songs. It’s great to see complete versions of some of the early clips we glimpse, but I do wish there were some bonus performances from later in the ‘60s and into the ‘70s. I suspect we’ll be seeing some more good live video releases in the future though. There’s also a ten-minute interview with director Brett Morgen that, while brief (maybe a full audio commentary should’ve been recorded), provides a little insight into certain decisions that were made during the assembly of Crossfire Hurricane.