First Night: Crossfire Hurricane; London Film Festival

After 50 years, sympathy for the old devils

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The Independent Culture

Teenage girls "wet themselves" (we hear in graphic detail in Brett Morgen's documentary) at early Rolling Stones concerts. The same bursting excitement seems to be in evidence yet again as the venerable band, celebrating 50 glorious years, prepares for its first live shows in five years.

Morgen's film, a world premiere at the London Film Festival, isn't exactly an independent view of Mick and Keith and all. It was produced by Jagger and executive produced by the other band members (although how active Keith Richards was in drawing up budgets and shooting schedules isn't revealed.)

From drug busts to Brian Jones' death to Altamont, the documentary doesn't contain any revelations that fans won't have known about. Its trump card is its archive material. Morgen (best known for The Kid Stays In The Picture, about Hollywood mogul Robert Evans) has pulled together extraordinarily rich footage and photos of the band in their pomp.

Wisely, the director keeps his main focus on the first 20 or so years of the Stones, before they turned into a stadium rock pantomime act. This is a transformation that Jagger himself alludes to, describing how a band that was seen by many as the embodiment of counter-culture darkness and depravity in the 60s became, over time, a very British institution with very little sense of menace at all.

The film pre-supposes a working knowledge of Stones lore. There is no narration and no talking heads interviews. Instead, Morgen relies on audio interviews with the band members and older footage to take us through the story of the Stones.

Keith Richards is typically deadpan in his account of how he was simply a "blues player" and then this "fame thing" kicked in, as if success came by accident. Jagger talks intriguingly about how he modelled his early stage routine on Little Richard, confronting, challenging and goading audiences.

We hear again how manager Andrew Oldham fashioned the band's image against that of The Beatles. Jagger and Richards reflect on how they started writing their own songs after starting as a cover band. Drummer Charlie Watts grumbles about the burden of celebrity. There is plenty of footage of screaming girls and details about the rivers of urine at the early gigs.

All this is interesting but very familiar. We've already had, amongst other Stones forays on film, the Maysles brothers' masterful documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy For The Devil (1968), Jagger acting in Performance (1968) and a recent documentary about the making of Exile On Main Street.

Where the film does pick up momentum and intensity is in its accounts of the death of Jones and of the Altamont tragedy. Jagger and Richards make it very clear how vulnerable and scared they were as they witnessed the Hells' Angels (ostensibly hired to provide security) wreaking havoc. Given its concentration on the early years, the film can't help but have a lop-sided feel. Richards is dry and funny about his drug addiction and how he kicked it. However, the last 30 years are otherwise largely skipped over.

As a visual record, Crossfire Hurricane is a real treasure trove. As history, it's on the skimpy side. "You can't be young forever," Jagger laments. The other side to this equation, of course, is that the fans still refuse to accept he can grow old.