The Rolling Stones have long been magnets for filmmakers. Not just any filmmakers, mind you — we’re talking about some of the greatest the world has ever seen: Jean-Luc Godard ("Sympathy For The Devil"), Martin Scorsese ("Shine a Light"), the Maysles brothers ("Gimme Shelter") and Hal Ashby ("Let’s Spend The Night Together") have all made works that featured the group to one degree or another. ("Sympathy For The Devil," a Godard film that was really about Mao and Marxism, being very much the "another.") Yet even Godard’s camera, so infatuated with images of class struggle and a proletarian revolution, couldn’t help but become mesmerized with the Stones. Why?
With Brett Morgen’s HBO Stones doc "Crossfire Hurricane" debuting Thursday, November 15th, and Peter Whitehead’s verité 1965 tour doc "Charlie Is My Darling" having gotten its broadcast premiere on November 10th on DirecTV's Audience Network just a few days after its long-awaited DVD release (not to mention MoMA’s ongoing Stones film series programming in honor of the band's 50th anniversary), now is as fitting a time as ever to reassess the group’s cinematic appeal.
What's striking when you check out the career retrospective "Crossfire Hurricane" — as well as Whitehead’s doc, the first to feature the Stones and one which has a raggedy, gangly quality that presages Pennebaker’s classic "Dont Look Back" — is how apparent it is that the Stones understood the direction the music industry was pointed toward better than any other band at the time. Whatever your opinion about their music, there’s no arguing that this group — still together after most of its contemporaries have long since disbanded, and raking in absurd concert fees as a result — has as sharp a grip on the business side of the music world as any rockers have ever had.
In 1962, the modern media machine’s churning of press items about celebrities was existent, but it was just a quaint ancestor of the 24-hour news cycle we see in the contemporary world. A band’s dress sense mattered, a band’s looks mattered, but a band was still, ultimately, a band. Their job was to get onstage, entertain, and then hop in the studio and make records.
The Rolling Stones, savvy as they were, understood — consciously or not — that something bigger was available to an outfit that exceeded the traditional rock group boundaries. Not just their clothes but their personalities, their offstage antics, their sense for the dramatic in their personal lives (let’s become exiles and move to a villa on the French Riviera!) — all this evinced an understanding that, in order to achieve peak popularity, the group needed to create off-stage personas as grandiose, dramatic and, frankly, cinematic as those they inhabited onstage.
You don't have to look far to see the degree to which the Stones have embedded themselves — in addition to their music — within contemporary popular culture. Keith Richards' "personality" gave birth to a popular character in a Disney movie franchise — and then earned him a role as that character’s father in one of the installments. When you come across a pirate based on John Lennon or Paul McCartney, call me.
Mick Jagger’s onstage depiction of sexuality is still influencing how young men create images for themselves to inhabit, and could probably fill reams of gender theory textbooks. The Stones, unlike any other group from their era (including even The Beatles), crafted distinct larger-than-life personalities that they then put to work selling their group. Today, this method of salesmanship is the status quo in the music industry, but at the time it was innovative and, naturally, formative.
What was it that led the Stones to this place? Clearly, they above all other groups understood that the 20th century was the century of cinema. In the 1960s, films were the center of social conversation the way popular TV shows and innovative websites are today. Ever the clever businessmen, the Stones understood that getting themselves onscreen as much as possible would burnish their legends and add a new dimension to their outsized existences; cinema, not music, was the only canvas that was really big enough for the Stones to express their true nature.
The energies of sexuality and danger that certainly were present at Stones shows (and in the group’s presence in general) were only so palpable through their music — rather, cinema, wielded by as skilled a practitioner as possible, would be the medium most suited to channeling and expressing those energies to give the best articulation of what The Rolling Stones were.
Not only was cinema a medium the Stones constantly sought to be in, it was a medium whose rules they took and applied to themselves, as they clearly aped the tenets of cinema. As movies do, the band needed a good guy (Jagger) and a bad guy (Richards). Each character’s personality needed to be clearly defined. There had to be storylines, with inciting incidents and arcs and climaxes and resolutions.
As the Stones continued putting themselves in films, they wound up become one themselves. The understanding of the music group as a narrative-creating machine is more or less routine nowadays, but it was very much a creation of the mid-20th-century — and the Stones were the group that best understood, exemplified and capitalized upon this idea.
If the Stones were the most cinematic band of the 20th century, perhaps part of what set them apart from their contemporaries was not only their understanding of how to sell themselves, but their ability to do so. Plenty of musicians just want to play music; and plenty of those who are okay with playing a role just aren’t the greatest actors. The Stones, however, have always obviously relished in their performances. In "Charlie Is My Darling," an offscreen interviewer asks a young Mick Jagger how much of his performance is an act onstage. Jagger responds that it’s all an act — "But," he adds, "It’s like an actor being onstage in a play — just because it’s an act doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it."