Wednesday 28 November 2012

On demand: "Crossfire Hurricane"

Crossfire Hurricane, the latest documentary to focus its gaze on the most over-documented band in rock history, is to the Rolling Stones what the Anthology project was to The Beatles or The Kids Are Alright was to The Who: both an official history, and a self-produced attempt to reclaim their image from all those variably reputable auteurs (Godard, Maysles/Zwerin, Robert Frank, Peter Whitehead) who sought to filter or distort it in order to show us something of consumerism or youth culture. So it is we hear the band's surviving members sharing their memories, and printing the legend wherever possible: they were embarrassed by the attentions of groupies, angry at the way they were turned into a commodity (just think how angry they must be at having to perform stadium tours at £150 a ticket), hounded out of Britain by the tax man, intruded upon by the press.

Those anecdotes offered up between the gripes and score-settling have been so long rehearsed in Stones biographies that Keef's admission he didn't go to Brian Jones's funeral, for the same reason he didn't go to his own parents' funerals, no longer shocks as it might once have done - but then the Stones have seen and done so much between them that very little about them now remains truly shocking. The music just about sustains the whole show, as it always has done, though the highlighting of the deathless "Midnight Rambler" only points up how much we have the Stones to blame for the likes of Kasabian; elsewhere, while director Brett Morgen's scrapbooking of newsreel and the other documentaries whips up appreciable textures - suggestive of the whirlwind that followed this band around, at least in their early years - it has no new insights to offer: the early 60s are all screaming girls, and Altamont is exactly as you saw it in Gimme Shelter, although deprived of the Maysles' critical, pointed framing, and used instead to set up yet another gag about Keef's drug intake.

A more inquisitive overview might have spotted how this band's entire post-'69 career proceeded as a reaction to that tragedy. Reflecting on Altamont, latter-day Mick is heard to say "if you were in an arena or theatre, you could leave - but out there we were very vulnerable": hence, perhaps, the retreat into air-conditioned, hi-vissed safety, and the attempt to price out the hippies and the troublemakers. The film's final quarter has to offset the onstage pyrotechnics with endless dreary and unrevealing footage of these still-travelling salesmen proceeding through hotel rooms and airport lounges, interrupted by the odd bust for possession of the kind of narcotics that might help to make life on the road seem marginally more tolerable or vaguely hedonistic.

Gone, however, is the early, intriguing line of inquiry about the Stones as performers, and how much they might be prepared to let on. We've seen the young Mick rebuffing one interviewer's questions about his sense of rhythm and timing ("you're talking to me as though I was an actor"); and how after even only a few years of playing the fame game, he'd changed his tune more or less entirely ("all of it's acting"). If Mick Taylor and Charlie Watts emerge from Crossfire Hurricane as the band's true virtuosos (and Bill Wyman and Ronnie Wood as larky bit-players), Jagger (who turned up in Performance, lest we forget) and Richards (who ended up shambling through Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean sequels) appear almost as jobbing actors, going through the same moves and riffs gig after gig. Put 'em together, and you undoubtedly get a hell of a show - but here, as there, it's one that tells us very little about themselves or ourselves, save our desire to cling onto some dated notion of an addled, brawling, carousing rock 'n' roll ideal.

Crossfire Hurricane (Parts One and Two) are available to watch here for the next three days, and is released on DVD from January 7.

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