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.
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.
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.
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."