How do you even begin to explain 50 years of rock 'n' roll rebellion and revelry? In "Crossfire Hurricane," an HBO documentary about the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards waxes romantic.
"It's almost a fairy story, you know?" he rasps.
Directed by Brett Morgen, "Crossfire Hurricane" (which premiered Thursday and repeats at 5 p.m. today) whisks viewers away on a journey that covers the Stones' evolution from blues-obsessed outsiders in the early 1960s to a mainstream institution. It's a breezy, boisterous ride — one that Morgen initially was hesitant to take.
"The Stones mean so much to so many people," he says. "I didn't want to be the one who (screws) up their story."
He didn't. Though some hard-core devotees will gripe that it's full of gaping holes, "Crossfire Hurricane" — a title taken from a lyric in "Jumpin' Jack Flash" — isn't meant to be a rigorous encyclopedic workout, but an immersive, up-close view of a pop-cultural phenomenon.
Thus, we are treated to a whirlwind of scenes that plunge us into the wild-eyed hysteria of those early club gigs. Also intimately recounted are the eerie death of original member Brian Jones, the formation of Richards and Mick Jagger as a songwriting team, and the drug-fueled, hedonistic haze of the '70s.
"Crossfire Hurricane" is, essentially, our backstage pass for it all.
The director who earned an Oscar nomination for 2002's "The Kid Stays in the Picture" hewed to a thematic narrative that followed the Stones' gradual transformation from being, as Jagger puts it, "the band everybody hated to the band everybody loves."
Indeed, the film recaps how they were originally cast as British bad boys — the "anti-Beatles." But what began as a gimmick became reality as run-ins with the authorities piled up, including the infamous 1967 Redlands drug bust.
"That's when we really put on the black hats," Richards says in the film. "Before that, they were off-gray."
"Crossfire Hurricane" deftly blends vintage concert footage, TV broadcasts, pieces of key songs and clips from other documentaries in with voiced-over highlights from 80 hours of fresh interviews with current and past band members — all conducted off-screen.
As for his impressions of the intimate one-on-one sessions, the filmmaker says reclusive drummer Charlie Watts predictably found them to be a "little like going to the dentist," while Richards proved to be "incredibly lyrical" and Jagger the most forthcoming.
The film, which abruptly ends after the 1978 release of "Some Girls," is unfortunately bereft of bombshell revelations, and doesn't even mention the bitter rift that developed between Jagger and Richards in the '80s. That's the downside of a project done with the participation of its subjects.
Still, there are a few insights to be gleaned from the interviews. Jagger, for example, talks of how the Stones were basically "method actors." Richards asserts that the song "Midnight Rambler" best captures the essence of his writing partnership with Jagger. And guitarist Mick Taylor is frank in his explanation of why he left the band.