After months of anticipation, last night (November 15) HBO premiered Crossfire Hurricane, the much-talked about documentary about The Rolling Stones. Today, CBS Local spoke to the film’s director, Brett Morgen, about the access he got to all of the living Rolling Stones — Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood, as well as former members Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor — and the perks to getting access to their vaults.
Crossfire Hurricane isn’t the first Rolling Stones documentary, of course: there’s been several, from the recently released documentary of their 1965 tour Charlie Is My Darling through the often bootlegged C***sucker Blues. In fact, there’s an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art celebrating all of the band’s films.
Morgen is a life-long Stones fan, but says that even he wondered if a new Stones film was necessary. “At first I was a bit ambivalent, because there have been a dozen Rolling Stones documentaries. And it sort of reeked of ‘Best Buy Presents: The Rolling Stones’ 50thAnniversary.’ Which I didn’t have any interest in. To the first point, I realized there was only one documentary that sort of traced the evolution of their story, (the 1993 film) 25×5: The Continuing Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, which has been out of print for years. That film was a completely different style from what I did… without saying anything bad about it.” He explains his vision: “I don’t think that music documentaries should be history lessons. My goal is to make the film the embodiment of the subject matter.”
The film does that: it uses lots of footage shot for 1972’s C***sucker Blues, but is leagues more coherent than that film. And from the beginning of Crossfire Hurricane, it’s clear that this isn’t a Stones film that doubles as a promotional tape for their new album or tour. There’s an early scene where Mick strips naked backstage, and another where he clearly sniffs a powdery substance off of a knife blade. Jagger isn’t known for narcotic use as Richards, Wood and the band’s late guitarist Brian Jones, so it’s kind of a surprising moment.
Morgen says that he and Jagger discussed the latter scene quite a bit. “One of the things I told him was that it was important that we had to create a covenant with the audience from the beginning; so they would know they were going to see a side of the Stones that they hadn’t seen before. If you establish that up front, hopefully there will be a lot of good will to carry you through the rest of the film. That shot, which has been getting a lot of attention, wasn’t there just for exploitative purposes, it served a larger purpose in announcing the type of film we would be making.”
Another aspect of the film that has the been the subject of some discussion, is that the eighty hours of interviews that Morgen did with the band members propels the film – but there’s no footage of those interviews. You never see the modern day Stones until the credits roll (when footage from Martin Scorsese’s 2008 concert film, Shine A Light, is shown). Morgen says that he recorded all of the interviews, but didn’t actually film them. By keeping the interviews to him, the interviewee and a microphone, there was a level of intimacy that couldn’t be reached with a film crew hovering around. Indeed, long time Stones fans will be hard pressed to find interviews where Jagger and Richards address such personal topics as their reactions to the disastrous Altamont concert or the death of Brian Jones. One moment in the discussions about Jones stands out to Morgen.
“There’s a moment where Mick asks me how long it was from the last time (they saw Brian Jones) until the time he died, and there’s a pause and he just goes, “F***!” I found that to be one of the most honest moments I’d ever heard from Mick Jagger in an interview.”
(Courtesy of Rolling Stones/ HBO)
At two hours, there’s only so much history that fit into the film, which ends in the early ’80s with the Tattoo You tour. There is an argument to be made, though, that the documentary could have extended at least through the end of the decade, with the group’s reunion and triumphant stadium tour. Morgen agrees: “In the perfect narrative, we would have taken it to (1989 album) Steel Wheels. The problem was: getting from Some Girls to Steel Wheels involves ‘World War III,'” referring to the mid-’80s spat between Jagger and Richards. “And that would have taken the film in a whole different direction at a late point in the film. Towards the end, the film already starts jumping years rather dramatically. The reason I think Steel Wheels would have been a nice place to land is that the band were all sober at that point, and Mick was finally able to realize this vision of being able to put on this incredible show. That’s where he really wanted me to get to.”
But Morgen points out that he was the film’s director and had the final call. “In my narrative, which is about how the band goes from being outcasts to respectable, they’d arrived at that point in 1981.”
So, not only does the film skip three decades of Stones history, it also gives very little screen time to Ron Wood.
“We talked about that as we started getting to the end of production,” says Morgen. “Maybe we should call this ‘Part 1.’ There was a lot of discussion of ‘Part 2.’ Now that it’s all said and done, I really do feel that they need to do a ‘Part 2’ to give Ronnie his due. Ronnie wants parts two, three and four! It needs to be done.”
However, he says that he won’t likely be the man to helm a sequel, although he hopes that the band produces it. “I feel the second part would be much more challenging in terms of locking down the narrative.” Another reason is that his next project is a documentary on the late Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, which has been in the works for years.
But he says that he had a great time on the project. As a Stones fan, it was a thrill getting to interview the band members. Another perk? Unrestricted access to the Rolling Stones’ vaults to get previously unseen and unheard material for the film. “What was amazing for me, was, you go into this refrigerated vault and there’s thousands of reel-to-reel tapes, and you grab one, and there’s (former Rolling Stones producer) Jimmy Miller’s handwriting and you go, “Oh! ‘Brown Sugar!’”
He admits to taking a bit of advantage of the situation: “I will confess now that the film is over, there were one or two sessions that happened to have some of my favorite Stones songs, that I knew I wasn’t going to use in the film… but I asked, ‘Can we get this transferred (to a digital format) please?’ I love the song ‘Melody’ from (the 1976 LP) Black And Blue, and that was an amazing session. I pray that one day they release the sessions from Black And Blue, especially that song, there’s some great stuff with (keyboardist/singer) Billy Preston and Mick going back and forth.”
Another great perk? Filming the Stones jamming in May of this year before they recorded their new songs (perennial producer Don Was was playing bass). He says that those sessions are likely to surface on the DVD/BluRay release, which should be out in 2013.
So, with this experience behind him, is he all Stones-ed out? Not at all. He says that at the film’s premiere in New York City earlier this week, he addressed Mick, Keith, Charlie and Ron. “I turned to the guys and thanked them for just letting me into their world. Come tomorrow, I’ll be in the back of line trying to get tickets for the Brooklyn show.”
Get more info about Crossfire Hurricane here.
— Brian Ives, CBS Local