Whether or not you accept the Rolling Stones as “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band” — and at this point in the game, there is no other significant group even playing that music — they are unquestionably the most documented band in history. The Beatles left a substantial film and photographic legacy, but they disbanded in 1970, whereas the Stones have just completed their latest tour, celebrating 60 years in the entertainment industry. Along the way, they have been the subjects (and frequently the producers) of documentary films and television series.
There was a time when rock musicians were willing to have cameras follow them around, even if they weren’t always pleased with the results, in the belief that this might produce something interesting. The early history of the Rolling Stones on film is also a history of the era’s filmmaking, including “Charlie Is My Darling,” shot in black and white on a 1965 tour of Ireland (though not officially released until decades later); Jean-Luc Godard’s “One on One,” portions of which capture the band in the studio transforming “Sympathy For the Devil” from acoustic to Latinesque rager; and the brilliant “Gimme Shelter,” Albert and David (It can be found on YouTube, surprisingly.) These films are not only about the band, but also about the band’s audience and the unhealthy expectations that audience had for them.
After that, there is a plethora of concert memorabilia, including 2008’s “Shine a Light” by Martin Scorsese, and a mixture of unauthorized pieces that rely on old footage and outside commentators (with sometimes unfavorable critical assessments of the band’s creative history) and more managed, self-celebrating official productions. This does not imply that the latter are completely whitewashed. The members’ various drug addictions are too well-known to be ignored, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ periods of disillusionment were newsworthy at the time. Nor is the band uncomfortable discussing them; the old bad boy image permits a degree of transgression to be proudly owned. Obviously, there are some things that will never be known. The Stones have buried their hatchets, cleaned up their act, and in their own way have become the “lovable rogues” that the Beatles were once marketed as. It is now a tale of survival, triumph, and the rekindled love of old friends. It is quite moving.
Given the number of times their story has been told, is it necessary to tell it again? Exists more to learn? They might as well have never toured again; they should have died before they reached old age. (I’m aware that’s another band.) Even if I weren’t reviewing it, I’m certain I would have watched the new Epix/BBC co-production “My Life as a Rolling Stone,” premiering here on Sunday. I’ve seen enough of these things to teach a course on the band. Jagger, Richards, Ron Wood, and Watts were the only surviving members of the Rolling Stones prior to the drummer’s passing last year, so the novel structure of the series does allow for some new material. (The Watts episode relies on archival interviews with the drummer, whereas the other band members participate in brand-new conversations.) A little less emphasis is placed on recounting the history and a little more on discussing the art, although they are all amusingly self-deprecating in this regard. (On being asked if he has a good voice, Jagger responds, “No… It’s OK. It serves its purpose.
Mick and Keith (we’ll use their first names, as the rest of the world does) first met in elementary school and reconnected in their late teens on a train platform. This is well-trodden ground. The love and hate, the yin and yang, the rifts and reconciliations between them take center stage in the majority of recountings, making the episodes focusing on second guitarist Ronnie (the “new kid,” in the band for nearly half a century) and Charlie, the drummer, the more immediately interesting ones. Notably, former Rolling Stones are barely mentioned. Brian Jones, the band’s founder, cuts a rather pitiful figure; Mick Taylor, who replaced him, is mentioned primarily because his departure left a void that Wood filled; and original bassist Bill Wyman, who left the band in 1993, is mentioned only once, despite the fact that he appears in numerous old photos and videos.
“My Life as a Rolling Stone” is a time-jumping mosaic that omits a great deal of information that is, after all, covered elsewhere. The historical highlights are included — drug bust at Keith’s house, Hyde Park ’69, Altamont, tax exile, New York flatbed truck performance, and swerve into disco — but examination of the band’s catalog essentially ends in the mid-1970s. Though they continued to make new albums at irregular intervals — their most recent, “A Bigger Bang,” was released in 2005 — what follows are the Years of Spectacle: the Rolling Stones as a stadium-filling traveling museum, a guaranteed good time with a multigenerational audience, a significant portion of which has to rely on documentaries like this to get a sense of the group’s former cultural currency, the sense of threat they generated, and the chaos that followed them. As has been the case for quite some time, things are currently more organized. Ronnie, formerly of the disorganized Faces, reflects on touring with the Rolling Stones: “We received newsletters, we knew what we were doing and when we were doing it.”
Each episode has a distinct theme. Mick is the leader, organizer, engine driver, and ringmaster (he protests that he is not a control freak). That must be extremely dull. His segment is the most chronological, tracing the Stones’ evolution from band to brand. From the beginning of the band’s career, he understood the significance of television: “I would figure out how the camera angles worked and what we were going to do. And I would practice my dance moves at home until I was well-rehearsed.” (There is even older, context-less television footage of a young Mick climbing a cliff.) Keith’s episode focuses on the music, its origins and evolutions. We see Mick’s first guitar and learn that his constant playing of Beatles songs to comprehend pop writing drove him “batty”; we hear about the “mystical” properties of his five-string open G tuning (“a cheap ride to heaven”); and we learn that Mick is “terribly shy.” Ronnie, who felt destined to become a Rolling Stone before it was even a possibility, is portrayed as the mischief maker (“He’s carefree, a proper old bohemian,” says his old Faces bandmate Rod Stewart) but also as the mediator, whose hiring helped reinvigorate the band in the mid-’70s, after which, according to Mick, their performance became “more of a fun thing, not so dangerous.”
As for Charlie, he was my favorite Rolling Stone, not only because of his playing, but also because of his composure, his admirably long marriage, and, ironically, his frequently expressed ambivalence about the whole thing. (“I think the Rolling Stones are great, but I don’t really see myself in it… I wish I had been able to turn off the music when it ended. I detest it. I despised being pursued by girls and the like. It used to embarrass me greatly.”) His episode relates the least to the band or the most to his life outside of it. His jazz roots, which we can hear on his first recording, provide a musical, sartorial, and philosophical thread.
There is a segment on his big band project and a visit to the “secret location” where Watts’ collection of historical drum kits — formerly owned by Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Tony Williams, D.J. Fontana, and others — and his own traveling tea set are stored. We view the line drawings he created in his hotel room when he wasn’t partying with the rest of the group; we visit his tailor; and we observe his dogs and horses. This episode begins one year ago in St. Louis, at the band’s first performance without Charlie. Mick is visibly moved as he pays tribute to him from the stage; Keith holds his hands. Once upon a time, he sang, “Time is on my side,” and also, “Baby, you’re out of time.” Now they are three, but the Stones continue to perform.