Crossfire Hurricane – director Brett Morgen’s film that covers the Rolling Stones’ career from 1963 until 1981 – premieres in the United States on HBO on Thursday, November 15, at 9:00 PM EST.
Chock full of never-before seen footage that even some of the band members never knew existed, the film is a beggar’s banquet for Stones fans starved to learn as much as possible about the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.” Narrated by current and past band members, Crossfire Hurricane is slated for a January 15, 2013, release on DVD and Blu-ray.
Morgen first made a splash as a documentary filmmaker in 2002, when his excellent The Kid Stays in the Picture – a documentary about the legendary Paramount producer Robert Evans – received four major film awards. Since then, he’s directed documentaries on the Chicago 10, the 2010 United States Olympic Ski team, and an ESPN 30 for 30 film on the day O.J. Simpson was charged with double homicide and tried to escape Los Angeles in his infamous white Bronco.
Two days before the HBO premier of Crossfire Hurricane, Morgen talked to Rock Cellar Magazine about his film and what he learned about the Stones while he was making it.
Rock Cellar Magazine: At the red carpet premiere of Crossfire Hurricane in London last month, you got the Keith Richards’ arm drape! How was that?
Brett Morgen: (Laughs) Keith is such a sweetheart, man. I mean Keith’s the real deal. He’s one of the most soulful, affectionate men I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across in my career. I have a very warm spot for Keith Richards.
RCM: Did Keith and the rest of the band participate in the making of Crossfire Hurricane?
BM: Mick was the principal participant in terms of the production of the film, but obviously they all participated in the interviews.
RCM: At Rock Cellar Magazine, we like to say that our Top 10 lists, like Spinal Tap, “go to 11.” What are the top 11 things that you learned from making this movie about the Stones? In particular what are the most surprising things?
BM: Number 1 is – you can’t put your finger on it. Everyone wants to know what the “secret sauce” is. Not only can’t I tell you, but you shouldn’t even ask! Number 2:
Mick Jagger does wicked impersonations of every member of the band, including himself. In another variation of this film, I would’ve loved for it to have it been a one-man show, with Mick doing all the other voices.
RCM: So which Stone does he do the best?
BM: Bill Wyman.
RCM: Can you do an impersonation of Mick Jagger doing Bill Wyman?
BM: (Laughs) [Morgen proceeds to do frighteningly good impersonations of both Bill Wyman and Keith Richards]
RCM: Speaking of Bill Wyman, how is he these days, and how did he get on with rest of the guys?
BM: Bill’s happier than he’s ever been in his life. He has a lot more peace of mind now that he’s left the band than when he was in the band.
RCM: OK, continuing – Top 11 Rolling Stones revelations…!
BM: Number 3: Bill Wyman himself was a revelation to me. He’s got an incredible photographic memory. He’s probably in the best position to write the history of the Rolling Stones.
RCM: He covers much of that in his book Stone Alone…
BM: Bill’s a very dignified guy, so in Stone Alone, I thought he did try to get a lot of bonker stuff in there for better or worse. But Bill had a tremendous perspective on the band and what made them great. Bill was what you call a “wobble.” Keith, Charlie, and Bill were always a little off. They explain this in the film. I can’t remember the exact word – but that’s what Bill thinks the secret sauce is.
RCM: And Ronnie Wood…?
BM: Ronnie is exactly like you would imagine: a barrel of laughs – someone who can light up any room. He’s just incredibly fun, good to be around.
RCM: Are Ronnie and Keith as close as they appear to be?
BM: I always saw them individually, so it’s hard for me to speak to that.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Ronnie and Keith were both born in some gypsy caravan together.
RCM: What was it like being around Charlie Watts?
Charlie would pretty much talk about anything rather than the Rolling Stones. He thinks the Stones’ style is a bit shabby – that it’s much ado about nothing. –Brett Morgen, director; Crossfire Hurricane
BM (cont.): He’s very self-deprecating. In terms of being a rock and roll drummer, he feels very blessed to have been afforded the opportunity he has, and I think that he sometimes wonders why he’s had a nudge over some of the other people he really looks up to.
RCM: Do you think that comes from his jazz background?
BM: Yes, I think that Charlie thinks that jazz is an art form and that rock ‘n’ roll is a commodity. I think that’s where his heart lies. Which leads me to my 4th revelation: Charlie Watts can sit at his kit for 19 hours at a time without leaving!
BM: Well, I don’t know if he can today, but I’ve heard of stories about how in the past, Charlie would be there for an insane number of hours and never complain.
RCM: Do you know how much direction Charlie took from Mick and Keith in the songwriting process?
BM: It’s hard to say. I do know that Jimmy Miller was a drummer and that he influenced the percussion and the drumming when he produced the band.
RCM: Which period do you personally think was the Stones’ best? 1968 through 1972, when Miller was their producer and they made Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St.? That’s sort of the common perspective.
BM: Yeah, the Jimmy Miller era – and the whole band would agree with that assessment.
RCM: Did any of the Stones talk about what happened after Exile on Main St. was released in 1972? It seems like they were never able to achieve that level of greatness again, no?
BM: Well, that’s debatable, but I think in the ’70s, drugs took their toll. The Stones were all living separately, and that contributed. I think Mick and Keith had stopped writing in a room together. And I also think that in terms of creating, the two new songs on GRRR! are fantastic. They’re wonderful tracks. But I think in terms of creation, it’s very hard to maintain that level of intensity and sustain it for the long term. If you go from the eight years from 1964 until 1972, and you look at their output, that’s five lifetimes there.
RCM: Were Mick and Keith primarily writing in a room together from 1964 until 1972?
BM: Definitely from ’64 until ’67, and then they started to write a little more separately.
Charlie told me of a story about Mick coming over and playing Sympathy for the Devil as a folk song on his doorstep. So I know that was definitely Mick’s own.
One of the things I find interesting about the Stones’ relation to the Beatles is when I listen to the Beatles, I can tell you what’s a John song and what’s a Paul song. I can’t really do that with the Stones. It’s really hard for me to pinpoint, say, what’s a Keith song and what’s a Mick song.
RCM: Ok, let's continue the list. More revelations.
BM: Revelation number 5: According to Keith, Midnight Rambler sums up the Stones’ entire career. It’s the only song that only the Rolling Stones could have written. What Keith said to me is that it’s a blues opera in three parts.
RCM: Keith always talks about Mick’s harmonica playing on Midnight Rambler. That When Mick plays the harmonica, he’s unadulterated. Any revelations about Mick Taylor?
Revelation number 6: Mick Taylor left the band mostly because he was succumbing to heroin.
RCM: What? It was always reported that it was because he wasn’t getting the songwriting credit he thought he deserved.
BM: No. No one in the band really knew why he left. But when I put the question directly to Mick Taylor, that’s what he told me.
RCM: Did the Stones want to keep him?
BM: They think that the band with Mick Taylor was probably the best. The respect that those guys have for Mick Taylor’s guitar playing at that time is unprecedented. He just blew them away.
Which leads to my next revelation, number 7: Mick Jagger really appreciated collaborating with Mick Taylor because Keith at that point was sort of a full-blown addict, and those were the two alpha males in the band. I think that he found a more simpatico collaborator in Mick Taylor. Songs like Sway were a Jagger-Taylor collaboration.
RCM: And Keith’s not on Moonlight Mile, either.
BM: Yeah. But I listened to the original sessions for Sway, and they blew my mind.
RCM: How so?
BM: They should’ve left the tape on for 15 minutes. Taylor was just figuring out the song – it was pretty remarkable. By the way, I was hearing two guitars, and when I played the tape for Keith, he said, “Oh no, that’s Mick Jagger.”
RCM: Give us a few more Rolling Stones revelations. Things you found out while making Crossfire Hurricane.
BM: Revelation number 8: Jagger likes to have an instrument in his hand. He’s an amazing harmonica player, and he seems to really enjoy having a guitar.
Revelation number 9: I think that most people think that Richards is the master of the music and Jagger is the master of performance and the lyrics, but Mick’s contributed a lot more to the music than people realize.
RCM: How about on the other side, with the lyrics - did Keith write a few as well?
BM: Keith wrote a first line a lot of the times, and Mick would follow it up, or vice versa. It wasn’t like all or nothing.
RCM: Were you inspired by the Beatles’ Anthology when you made Crossfire Hurricane, or were you trying to do something completely different?
BM: No. Anthology is ten-hours long or something like that.
I had to tell the history of the Stones – which, by the way, is not the fifty-year history of the band. My film covers 1963 through 1981. I would’ve loved to make the Rolling Stones’ version of Anthology, but it wasn’t anything that Mick was interested in doing. Mick wanted to make a movie.
RCM: Why was Mick against doing a mini-series documentary?
BM: He thought it might be over-indulgent. And he wasn’t sure how much archival material there was to sustain it. There’s not as much footage as you might think of the Stones in existence. A lot more footage survives of the Beatles. The Beatles were archived more. The BBC or whoever would shoot the Beatles felt at the time that they were more important, would be around longer, and that they would save everything.
RCM: In the ’60s, when the Stones were first starting out, did they think they were going to be a flash-in-the pan?
BM: Yeah, no one thought that it would last more than year or two.
RCM: How aware were the Stones in the ’60s about being positioned in opposition to the Beatles? In the trailer for Crossfire Hurricane, Richards says the Stones had to wear the “black hat.”
BM: That was the role that they were cast in, and that’s what they had to do to compete with the Beatles at that point.
In 1964, John Lennon said to Keith [Richards], “Man, I wish I was in your band. It would be a lot more fun.”
RCM: Why do you think he said that?
BM: Because the Stones got to be themselves, and the Beatles at the time still had to be the mop-tops. The Beatles all wore the same suits, but that’s not who they were. John Lennon could’ve easily been in the Rolling Stones. He would’ve fit in perfectly, in a way. I think that he was very jealous that the Rolling Stones got to play the “bad boys.” Lennon certainly felt like he fit more into the black hat than the white hat.
RCM: How did the Stones feel about Lennon?
BM: There was a great deal of admiration for the Beatles’ songwriting. Nobody thought about songwriting before the Beatles. It was all “moon in June.” There was the Brill Building, and they would write the songs. The Beatles really changed that, and I think that had everything to do with the Stones’ longevity. Let me put it this way: If the Stones hadn’t started writing their own songs, we wouldn’t be talking right now.
RCM: Do you feel that the Beatles were the inspiration for Mick and Keith’s songwriting?
BM: Yeah, much more so than Bob Dylan, I think.
RCM: Did Mick and Keith intentionally write more controversial songs just to present themselves as the “bad boys”?
BM: Mick was a provocateur and a master salesman – he knew what would sell.
RCM: How does Keith feel about Mick these days?
BM: Keith has a great deal of respect and admiration for Mick.
RCM: And what does Mick like about Keith?
BM: Keith’s the riff master, comes up with beautiful melodies, and writes great songs. And the two of them have a very smart ear for music, which is the key to their collaboration. But, like I said, Mick is sensitive to the fact that history has presented Keith as the guy who comes up with the music, and I don’t think it’s as clean as that.
RCM: If you had to name your favorite Stones’ song or album, what would it be?
BM: Beggars Banquet. That was the first Stones album I ever bought, and it’s one of the albums that if I were ever in the hospital dying, I’d ask them to play it for me. I love Beggars Banquet. I use more unreleased tracks in Crossfire Hurricane from that album than from any other album.
RCM: And favorite Stones song...?
BM: I’m going to give strange choice for favorite song. It would either be No Expectations or Salt of the Earth.
There’s a great moment in the film about No Expectations that will send chills down your spine – it’s really touching. It was one of the last things that Brian Jones ever contributed to before he died.
[Crossfire Hurricane makes its United States debut on HBO on Thursday, November 15, at 9:00 PM EST.]