Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Outtakes" movie column, Feb. 23, 1990


A decade or so ago, a documentary titled "The Kids are Alright" debuted in theaters across America. I don't recall whether it earned a dime or if anyone besides me went to see it, but I'll never forget the feeling I had when I emerged from the theater afterward.

The film chronicled the history of The Who, a British rock band I quite liked. And the film -- for me, anyway -- was transcendent. Directed by a guy who had also been a fan for some 15 years, the movie was like a love letter. As a Rolling Stone magazine writer quipped at the time, and I'm paraphrasing here: "The Kids are Alright" will not only leave you feeling as if The Who did it best, but first. That's precisely how that movie made me feel.

But, frankly, I'm a sucker for rock 'n' roll documentaries -- or rockumentaries, if you prefer. When they're done well, they're a blast because they blend the two entertainments I love most: movies and rock 'n' roll.

So it was with great expectations that I rented "25 x 5: The Continuing Adventures of the Rolling Stones" last weekend. Essentially, "25 , x 5" is the product of what originally had been intended as a broadcast TV documentary to coincide with the Stones' "Steel Wheels" tour. And, like so many documentaries on The Rolling Stones, this film is a mixed bag. Great music and rare performance footage is undercut by wimpy interviews and an odd fascination with the financial history of the band.

The bottom line, however, is that if you're a Stones fan, as I am, you'll like "25 x 5" a lot. One of the most striking things is the candid discussion of the band's history of hyping itself, which began under former manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham encouraged the bad-boy media image of the Stones to counter the Beatles' "cleaner" image. Band members and associates burst much of the bubble though, claiming, for instance, that the infamous airborne orgy scene from the unreleased film of their 1972 tour was staged because the filmmakers "didn't have an orgy scene" yet.

Keith Richards recalls ringing up The Beatles to coordinate record releases so each band didn't rain on the other's parade. And the genesis of Richards' and lead singer Mick Jagger's songwriting roots was actually less mythic than widely reported. Legend had it that Jagger and Richards decided to write songs after watching John Lennon and Paul McCartney dash off a song in five minutes at a nightclub. According to "25 x 5," their record company forced them into a room and wouldn't let them out until they had written a song or two -- because they were running out of classic R&B songs to cover.

The rare performance footage is abundant, although not many of the songs are played in their entirety: there's "You Can't Always Get What You Want" from the unreleased "Rock 'n' Roll Circus" film; "Honky Tonk Women" from the Brian Jones memorial Hyde Park concert; Jagger being forced to fudge the lyrics of "Let's Spend the Night Together" and rolling his eyes each time he does it on the "Ed Sullivan Show;" "Mannish Boy" with Muddy Waters in a nightclub; and "Brown Sugar" played atop a flatbed truck as it rolls down a New York City street.

Furthermore, the Stones made "videos" to promote their songs for years before they became popular on MTV. Film shorts for the numbers "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Angie" and "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" are included in "25 x 5."

Several hugely important facets of the band's history receive superficial treatment, or are ignored altogether. Richards talks about kicking his longtime heroin habit as if it were no big deal, Jagger admits the band was "partly to blame" for the disastrous and deadly Altamont Speedway concert near San Francisco, the 1978 tour is overlooked entirely and the reasons for Mick Taylor's departure from the band in the mid-'70s are never examined.

Still, "25 x 5" has its share of surprises. The normally reclusive Charlie Watts sits for an interview and adds his insights to the history of the band, as does Bill Wyman.

It's not the sort of raucous, gutsy documentary treatment The Who got with "The Kids are Alright." But it probably wasn't intended as the band's lasting document. Wyman has long been the Rolling Stones' archivist, and he's repeatedly said that he's in the process of distilling the history of the band into suitable shape for a book and accompanying film. Maybe that will be the definitive Stones movie.

Fans would welcome it, but you can't always get what you want.

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