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Filmmaker captures The Stones' peak in 'Crossfire Hurricane'

How do you tell a familiar story in a unique way? That was the challenge facing Brett Morgen when he was hired to produce a film about The Rolling Stones.

By Patrick Prince

How do you tell a familiar rock and roll story in a unique way?

That was the challenge facing Brett Morgen, filmmaker of critically acclaimed films including "The Kid Stays in the Picture," when he was hired to produce a documentary that would illustrate The Rolling Stones' legacy as it hit its 50-year mark.

The result is "Crossfire Hurricane," a film that perfectly captures The Rolling Stones during a time identified as the band's greatest period. Using off-camera commentary and archive footage that spanned from early television performances to outtakes of Robert Frank's infamous, psuedo-movie "Cocksucker Blues," Morgen creates a fresh and exciting visualization of the true spirit of what many consider to be the greatest rock and roll band of all time. Goldmine chatted with Morgen just before the release of "Crossfire Hurricane" on DVD.

Goldmine: As a filmmaker, how was this movie different for you? You've done some TV series on music, but this was a different animal than, say, "The Kid Stays in the Picture."
Brett Morgen: What I'm interested in is making films that become sort of the embodiment of the subject, rather than historical portraits. By that, I mean I like to tell stories from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in, with the hope of creating an immersive experience for the audience, so in that regard "Crossfire Hurricane" is really no different than "The Kid Stays in the Picture" or some of the other films I've done. It is different than "The Kid Stays in the Picture," let's say, because Bob Evans and The Rolling Stones are totally different characters. And, therefore, the films need to be presented in a different manner. "The Kid Stays in the Picture" was meant to be a very seductive, elegant, glamorous movie, and to that extent, it's a series of one long dissolve. In fact, there are no straight cuts in that film up until the last 25 minutes. In the Stones' film ... there's not a dissolve in the whole film. It's a much more jagged movie. It's a little dirtier around the edges. And that was intentional, because we were trying to capture the spirit of the band. People have called (Rolling Stones) the greatest garage band in history, besides being called the greatest rock and roll band. If you listen to their studio recordings and sessions, it definitely comes through that there in the mixing, the material got elevated. As Bill Wyman says in the film, there's something inherently dangerous about the Stones' music — that it feels like it's gonna fall apart at any second. I think that that is part of their strength and part of the character that we try to capture in the film.

Crossfire Hurricane Rolling Stones documentary

GM: Which explains why you chose the title, besides the obvious reasons that it's a lyric — the danger, the hurricane itself.
BM: Without giving too much meaning to the lyrics 'crossfire hurricane,' I think it pretty much sums up what the experience of being a Rolling Stone must be like — the myriad of reasons why no other band has made it 50 years — one of which is desire. It's hard to imagine wanting to stay in that light, within those cross hairs for 50 years, but the band thrived on it.

Rolling Stones today

The Rolling Stones rock just as hard today as they did 50 years ago, although the core lineup has changed slightly. These days, it's (from left) Ron Wood, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards. Publicity photo/Universal Music.

GM: Can you believe it's been 50 years?
BM: I mean, I'm only 44, so I can't even imagine 50 years (laughs). But when you're with the guys, you see why. Despite what problems they may have personally, when they get together to play, they've still got it.

GM: Well, you've stated that you felt like a therapist at times talking to the band. I mean, probably not like, say, the Metallica documentary "Some Kind of Monster," but ...
BM: Oh, I don't know. I've seen the film. Yeah, I definitely felt like a collective therapist for the band. By that, I mean all the sessions that were done were one on one, extremely intimate ... In fact, probably more so than the Metallica documentary, because they had camera crews around, they had the whole band in the room. This was one on one, you know, Keith Richards and myself with a tape recorder. There was no crew. There was nobody around. And in that context, you sort of forget that you are being recorded, and we ended up doing about 80 hours of interviews, and I don't think there was any subject that was taboo. And the guys certainly used me as a vehicle to sort of communicate, either to one another or to just get stuff off their chests. At one point, Bill Wyman said to me early on in one of our interviews — we were about 30 minutes in — and he said, you know, I've written two books on the subject, on my experience as a Rolling Stone, but I kept a lot of it out because I didn't want to create a sort of tabloid frenzy. But I have to get this off my chest. And then he proceeded to let loose on me for the next 13 hours.

GM: Was there anything that they had said that they later wanted to retract?
BM: Listen, there were certainly things that they said that I would have liked to have used in the film. However, I knew better than to put it in the film if I ever wanted to see The Rolling Stones play together again. There are things that some people say that are just to be mean-spirited or hurtful that certainly didn't have a place in this type of movie. The great thing about this whole process is that there was nothing that they asked me to take out per se, or, "I regret saying that. Make sure that doesn't get used," or anything like that. That never happened.

GM: What I loved about the documentary was how you used off-camera commentary. It made it feel fresh.
BM: That's something I've been doing for 10 or 12 years in all my movies. There are certainly movies that make sense to linger on the talking head — if the way they're telling you something is insightful or being able to see the nuances in the face. For me, there's not that much revealing about a mouth that's moving. It's sort of a waste of space. I always find that it's much more intriguing to me — and challenging as a filmmaker — that I can have the same words with images, and now those words and images are creating a meaning, as opposed to just having the words. That's part of creating a more immersive experience for the audience, and allowing them to feel like they are experiencing the events as they're unfolding — as opposed to seeing them through a perspective of time, which is what happens when you put someone on camera talking about events from 30 to 40 years earlier.

Rolling Stones 1960s lineup

The much-younger Rolling Stones in the 1960s, when the lineup consisted of (from left) Mick Jagger, Brian Jones, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts. Publicity photo/Universal Music

GM: Plus, we already know what Mick Jagger looks like now; you know what I mean?
BM: It's also what you're trying to capture. It's the same reason why I kept Bob Evans off camera when he was 70, if you've seen "The Kid Stays in the Picture." In order to appreciate the power of some of these icons, you need to see them in the moment they were revered and the moment when they were seducing the world. If a band of 70-year-old men emerged on the scene today, I don't think they would capture the public's imagination the way a 20-year-old Mick Jagger does. So it's important for the audience to be able to experience it that way, as opposed to seeing them through the prism of age. The other thing is, we were trying to create a timeless film, and one of my problems with talking in a documentary is it places the film at a specific time, which is the time that it's being made. Ten years later, it will look dated and sort of irrelevant. By keeping them off screen, for someone who experiences "Crossfire Hurricane" today or 20 years from now, are they going to be able to experience it in the same way?

GM: That's a great point, because I felt like I was in another time while watching it.
BM: Well, there's that documentary that's out of print, that the Stones did for their 25th anniversary, "25x5." It's really hard to come by, was never released on home video here and been 25 years since it aired, but it is available in some other countries, and it does follow a similar story to the one I tell in "Crossfire Hurricane." For me, the big difference was that "25x5," which is primarily a talking-head, interview-based film, was done in 1989. When I see it today, not only does it feel completely dated because of the way the band looks at that particular moment in time when they were being interviewed, but it is also a film that I feel is parts of the story told from the outside in. And hopefully, what audiences can appreciate about "Crossfire Hurricane" is that it's not a history lesson. It's basically an opportunity to go on this movie-like journey with these guys and sort of piece the story together. A lot of these historical rock-umentaries, to me, make a mistake of not having a central, throughline of action that any narrative needs to have. By that, I mean you need to have a story. You can't be all things to all people, particularly when you are dealing with rock and roll or with any musical act. There's this temptation to be like, "I have to mention this album, because this album was a huge hit.' Well, how does that album or the experience of making that album relate to the overall story that you're telling? Oftentimes, it has nothing to do with it, so you take a detour, and then you come back to the story. Well, when we started this movie I told Mick, "There's a chance you won't hear 'Satisfaction.' There's a chance we won't ever hear you guys mention 'Satisfaction.' It all depends on if it has a place in our story." And the story I was trying to tell is a very simple story of how the band started their careers by playing the role, playing the part of the rogue outsider ...

GM: The anti-Beatle.
BM: ... the anti-Beatle, right. Then they basically became the role. By 1968, they were no longer playing the role, they've become the role. And the character that they were playing nearly devoured them, nearly killed them. And when they emerged from that, when Keith finally gives up heroin in 1980, they try to turn the page and become a different band. So my story was concluded. The reason why I end my film when I do is because my story was over. I finished what I set out to tell. And to go any further with that would have been a different film. That's why, for example, you don't hear about Marianne Faithfull in the film. Not because Mick didn't want her in. In fact, Mick called me and wanted her in the film. She had an important place in Rolling Stones history, but it was outside that narrative that I was trying to tell. Trying to grapple 50 years, you have to lock yourself in, and that's what we did with "Crossfire."

Cocksucker Blues Rolling Stones

The movie "Cocksucker Blues" was a great source of images for the new "Crossfire Hurricane" documentary.

GM: You mention "25X5," but what do you think of "Cocksucker Blues?"
BM: I've seen every frame that was shot for "Cocksucker Blues." We unearthed and transferred to hi-def every single frame that was shot for that movie. Outside of the people who edited it, I'm probably one of the only people that has seen every frame. It's hard for me to separate the film from the footage at this point. "Cocksucker" is one of those films that really hung over my head when I was a young filmmaker. I love Robert Frank's photography, and from the time I was 17, I knew about this film. I was very fortunate that in the early '90s, I got invited to a screening by the chair at NYU when I was a film student there. And I remember being incredibly disappointed. I remember feeling that it didn't feel like a movie. It's very asynchronous. The sound is horrible. You can barely hear anything. As a film, to me, it didn't work. It was a mess. Now that I'm older, I can look at it and kind of appreciate what Robert Frank was trying to do with the film, which is consciously not give it a narrative to make it seem endless, and everything blends into one. And I think that was the point of what he was trying to do. "Cocksucker Blues" was the one massive archive I had to exploit, because the Stones own the footage, and they had all the footage, and there is more footage of "Cocksucker Blues" than everything else combined. So when I went into the project, I knew I was going to exploit those elements as far as I could. And it's part of the reason I decided to open up in '72, because we had the material there, and I wanted to establish them at that point. I felt while we were making this, that if we do our jobs right, there really is no reason for anyone to watch "Cocksucker Blues" again, because we basically took the best moments of the film and the outtakes — probably 80 to 90 percent of the outtakes are utterly unusable, for technical reasons or just nothing's happening. And I sort of felt that way about all the films. If one were to come to The Rolling Stones fresh today, watch "Crossfire Hurricane." And if you want to know more about any one of them, or a moment, tere's probably an entire film on Hyde Park, Altamont. But even with "Gimme Shelter," which is a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, I don't know what is left in "Gimme Shelter" that we didn't take. We sort of took the best moments and sort of made them our own. Part of the deal was that we very rarely, if ever, lift two shots in a row from the same source. My feeling was, this is all source material, and it's ours to appropriate, and by placing in in these contexts, we're giving it new meaning and making it our own. The concert experience of playing at Altamont, I felt, you really get through The Rolling Stones' eyes in "Crossfire Hurricane," as opposed through (the "Gimme Shelter" director's) Maysles' eyes.

GM: What was disingenuous about "Cocksucker Blues" is that some of the guys in the band never really lived that sort of life or only moments of it.
BM: The thing is, The Rolling Stones' reputation is basically Keith Richards. Keith Richards is the guy. That's why we think of them as this derelict, renegade band. If it wasn't for Keith, there's no way we would think of them as the quote-unquote dangerous band. So you have Keith. You have Mick, who's doing his thing, but he's very much a consummate professional and always has been. And you have Charlie Watts, who has been married for 50 years and didn't do drugs until the '80s.

GM: That's what I'm talking about.
BM: Listen, there's this very perverted take from "Cocksucker Blues" that disturbed the hell out of me, where Charlie was taking his little girl, who was about four or five at the time, to the bathroom. And Charlie leads the little girl to the bathroom, and Robert Frank follows them into the bathroom and then lifts his camera over the stall, filming Charlie's daughter while she's going to the bathroom. I'm all into fly-on-thte-wall filmmaking, but that, to me, was beyond exploitative. The thing is, Charlie's a loner who had nothing to do with it. Bill Wyman is, to this day, seething, because in the movie "Cocksucker Blues," there's a famous scene with a bunch of groupies sort of being molested on the Stones' plane, and in the movie there's a shot of Bill Wyman filming the proceedings. If you watch "Cocksucker Blues," it seems like Bill Wyman is filming these girls being molested on this plane. Bill is so angry about it, because the shot that Robert Frank used of Bill was taken completely out of context on some other day, and Bill's sitting next to his 9-year-old son. Although Bill is one of the great womanizers of rock and roll, he was not someone out banging groupies on the plane in front of everyone or in front of his kid. The irony to this is that when I examined all the footage from the plane, there are definitely some incredible shots of Robert Frank filming the orgy — in fact, encouraging the orgy. But Frank did not put himself in the movie in that context. He put himself in other ways, but then he does that to Bill Wyman, which, to me, is sort of tacky. And there was stuff in there where I heard Frank in the outtakes saying 'Do you think we'll get to film Mick f**king?' He clearly had an agenda. He quickly realized that the greatest access that he could have is through the groupies and the roadies. The band, to him, was probably boring, because Mick and Keith were pretty much just sitting around listening to music. Well, Mick was doing some other stuff, but you know what I mean. So I think Frank really missed the boat on it. But there's some incredible imagery. And, you know, originally "Cocksucker Blues" was going to be one film that was going to be married to "Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones." The way they conceived of it it was a concert film with some life stuff, and they would cut to it. But Frank never wanted to touch the footage from "Ladies and Gentlemen," which was done by a different film crew. And there are no outtakes from "Ladies and Gentlemen." It is what it is. But Frank shot an insane amount of footage, a lot of it asynchronous, of the band onstage. So one of the things we did for the performances of the '72 tour in "Crossfire" was to take performances from, say, "Street Fighting Man" from "Ladies and Gentlemen" and use it as our base, and then edit on top of it using Frank's outtakes to create a new thing. We felt that the performance that was captured in 1972 was way too staid and formal for what the Rolling Stones are. And we wanted to grunge it up and dirty it up. And those concerts back then were shot with 35mm or 60mm film, which never had the latitude to expose both the band and the audience. It always seems like the band is playing to an empty arena. You see lights on the band, and you don't see anything else. That's not something you experience in "Crossfire Hurricane." In "Crossfire Hurricane," any time the band's playing, you are right there with them. You are in the audience; you are seeing shots of the audience which has never been captured in a nighttime performance before. And what we did is take a lot of the crowd shots during the encores, when the band would turn the lights on.

GM: Was there something you learned about the band that you never knew?
BM: I like their music. If I'm a fan of the band, it means I listen to their music. It doesn't mean I read about them in interviews or books. That to me takes it to another level. So I never read a book about the Rolling Stones before they hired me. I knew their music and followed from the time I first got into music as a young adult. Loved "Beggars Banquet." Probably one of my favorite albums of all time. To this day, I can listen to it over and over and over again — which is probably why there's more music from "Beggars Banquet" in "Crossfire" than anything else. The story of the band and the anti-Bealtes, that was fresh to me. I know to other people it's old hat, but to me it was fresh. I knew a little bit about Brian Jones, but not that much. It was all sort of revelatory to me, but, again, the goal was not to do a history according to the lowest common denominator. Everyone's got a different level of understanding of the Stones. Some people, there's gonna be nothing new here in terms of story. And for others, it's all gonna be new. For the people who know everything about The Rolling Stones: While the story may feel older to them, the revelations are hopefully new. And I know for a fact that there is a ton of stuff that Mick and Keith talked to me about that they never talked about before. It doesn't exist in any other interviews. And once again, what I think we delivered to the hardcore aficionado collectors — at first glance they may think they've seen all this before, but 60 percent of the movie is unreleased material. Upon closer examination, what you realize is that the "Jumpin' Jack Flash" promo — which you've seen for 42 years — we've taken the original material and re-edited it from scratch, so 50 to 60 percent of that "Jumpin' Jack Flash" performance has never been seen. Those shots — nobody's ever laid eyes on them. Same thing with "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Rock and Roll Circus." We went back to all the outtakes. We cut performances from scratch. You're seeing angles and footage that nobody has ever seen; it's never seen the light of day. And musically — while the music may seem familiar to those who are deeply religious about the Rolling Stones — you come to realize that the version of "No Expectations" that we play in our film has never been heard before on bootlegs or any other manner. I think it was the eighth take out of 26 takes, and we chose it because Mick had changed the lyrics at that particular moment. There's also unreleased "She's A Rainbow." There's unreleased "Sweet Virginia." There's unreleased "Tumblin' Dice" ... there's just a ton of unreleased early demo versions of songs that you may not pick up the first time you see it because we weren't trying to be flashy with it or show that they were unreleased. We just wanted to give the fans another window into the creative process.

GM: And there are some nice extras on the "Crossfire Hurricane" DVD, too, like the "Live In Germany" 1965 footage.
BM: The thing I (now) walk away with from the film is that I probably have an encyclopedic knowledge of what material is in existence related to the Rolling Stones from their conception through the '70s. There are some rumors of some mystery footage shot at the Crawdaddy Club which I can tell you doesn't exist. Because a lot of this stuff from 1963 was lost or never saved — so the Stones' first couple TV appearances don't exist. Outside of a NME poll performers show, the first and only live concert performance shot of the Rolling Stones would be between "Charlie My Darling" (the first documentary film about the Rolling Stones) and Live in Germany 1965. And the Germany show is fantastic. There are three or four unreleased tracks on that on the "Crossfire Hurricane" DVD. But for a band that was known as this great live band there was just, unfortunately, not a lot of footage survived. The interesting thing is that at the time I think there was a sense that The Beatles were worth saving, and so almost everything survived from The Beatles. Maybe because The Stones were never perceived in that same light in those early days, (footage) was thrown out. But we looked everywhere. Even if there was a collector who said they had some home movies, we got everything you can get your hands on. So I'm pretty confident that what you see in this film represents the Rolling Stones. GM