‘I was definitely on another planet at the time,” Keith Richards now says of the aftermath of the disastrous 1969 Altamont concert, referring to his excessive drug use.
In the transfixing new 50th anniversary documentary “Crossfire Hurricane,” Richards and the other Rolling Stones recall their early years, from 1962 to 1978, as an otherworldly blur of nonstop drugs, alcohol, touring, and fan worship. And the HBO movie’s remarkable footage, with its steady images of snorting and drinking and toking, backs them up. In one glimpse backstage before a show, we see Mick Jagger change into a skintight onesy with waist sash and then snort powder from the sharp point of a switchblade.
So it makes perfect sense that “Crossfire Hurricane,” which premieres Thursday night at 9, contains no dates or explicit chronology. There is no historical data about the band’s ups and downs on the Billboard charts or how they met. Rather than providing numerical signposts for the viewers, director Brett Morgen takes us on a loosely formed adventure that reflects the band’s own freewheeling experiences. “Crossfire Hurricane” is presented from the Rolling Stones’ point of view; it’s not an objective chronicle so much as an absorbing paroxysm of memories and performances. The only markers are hair styles and songs, from the early years when the Stones were spun as the bad guys to the Beatles’ good guys up to the days of Richards’ 1977 drug bust and the advent of “Some Girls.”
The movie is narrated by the Stones themselves, from a set of recent voice-only interviews. Behind the clips, we hear the Jagger of today describe the “feedback loop” between the violence in our culture and the violence in their early music. He talks about how the press became increasingly obsessed with the band’s drug exploits, and how an acid trip with Richards culminated in a drug bust: “It had been a lovely day on acid, and it turned out to be a really unpleasant evening.” He learned from Little Richard, he says, how to perform on stage and “tease” the audience.
We hear the Richards of today talk about the band’s raw sound early on — “The showbiz angle was just boring to us” — and how getting busted “gave us a badge of honor.” When they retreated to the South of France in 1971 to record “Exile on Main Street,” he says, they were a “pirate nation.” He picks “Midnight Rambler” as the essential Jagger-Richards composition, the song that no one else could have written. Jagger and Richards both remember Brian Jones’s retreat from the band to what Richards calls “bye-bye land.” Jagger, saying that Jones’s last notable contribution was his slide guitar work on “No Expectations,” feels that Jones “was the author of his own misfortunes.”
But none of their hindsight can match the power of the footage in “Crossfire Hurricane.” The movie is crammed with extraordinary candid and stage imagery, both black and white and color, with fans attacking the band mid-performance and older reporters asking them tired questions about the counterculture. You can almost track the arc of the Stones by studying how Jagger’s face evolves over the course of the movie. At first he is wide-eyed and bemused by all the attention, and then he appears to be energized by it; but by the ’70s, after Altamont and endless stadium performances, you can see weariness creep into his expressions, and wariness, too. He clearly does not enjoy the pressure to always act like his stage character. His cheeks lose their youthful puffiness and pliancy; the lines that are prominent now begin to creep in.
In one thrilling scene, we see Jagger and Richards in the nascent stage of their longtime songwriting collaboration. After a first album of covers, the band knew they needed to come up with original material. The pair, in a hotel room with other band members, toy around with lyrics and melodies of the song “Sittin’ on a Fence,” landing finally on “Tell Me,” which Jagger says is the first song he remembers writing. Some of the concert performance clips give a startling sense of the press of people around the band, with the Altamont stage looking particularly claustrophobic. In a clip from a talk show, the young Jagger talks about the fans’ almost religious fervor, noting that “with the boys, it erupts much more aggressively.”
Morgen, who also directed “The Kid Stays in the Picture” and “Chicago 10,” overlooks a lot — the specifics of the changing band lineup, for instance, as well as any of the women involved with the band members. But “Crossfire Hurricane” isn’t an effort to be encompassing and archival, like “The Beatles Anthology,” which ran for six hours across three nights. It’s a more visceral impression of a band on fire, and as such it offers plenty of satisfaction.