The Rolling Stones turn 50 this year. Which is amazing on many levels. Particularly when you consider that many people in and around the scene over the years wouldn't have predicted Stones guitarist and spiritual guide Keith Richards making it to 50, let alone the band he seems to love more than life itself.
But that's the Stones, isn't it? Even Mick Jagger, as a young man interviewed in the never-before-released 1965 film "Charlie Is My Darling" – one of two rather brilliant Stones documentaries seeing daylight this week – only saw the band lasting a few years. It must indeed be an awful lot like Richards has repeatedly stated over the decades – the only way out of the Rolling Stones is "in a pine box."
The 50th anniversary of this seminal British blues-punk-rock 'n' roll band is notable for more than the fact that millions of people around the world still care, will still pay up to $800 per ticket for the best seats at the band's recently announced handful of live shows, and will likely line up to catch "Crossfire Hurricane" when it debuts on HBO at 9 p.m. Thursday, or head to a retail outlet over the weekend to snatch up the ornate "Charlie Is My Darling" box set.
It's significant because the Stones are the only band to have made it this far. Just as the group was making it all up as it went along in its earliest days, evolving from a cover band specializing in American blues and primal rock 'n' roll into a songwriting force out of necessity, so too is the group navigating uncharted waters as the only outfit from its generation to still be cranking it out as its members prepare to enter their 70s. (Both Jagger and Richards will do just that in 2013.)
There will be a flurry of activity in Stones-land concomitant with the anniversary, including the release of (yet another) career retrospective, the double-disc "Grrr!," which includes the brand-new tunes "Doom and Gloom" and "One More Shot". (The collection drops on Tuesday.) A private intimate show in Paris at the end of October offered a hint of what the band will be bringing to the four shows it has already announced – two in London's 02 Arena in November, and two in Newark, N.J., in December – for the Anniversary tour. Richards has already hinted, to Rolling Stone magazine, appropriately enough, that there will be more shows to come.
Clearly, the demand for a lengthy Stones tour is there. Whether it materializes is anyone's guess, but for the insatiable Stones fanatic, there's plenty to get fired up about, even if you're not lucky (and wealthy) enough to grab a ticket for one of these four shows.
First up is the aborted Peter Whitehead film, "Charlie Is My Darling – Ireland 1965." The British filmmaker Whitehead, who would go on to create the cult classic "Tonight Let's All Make Love In London," was originally commissioned by then Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham to document the band's weekendlong Irish tour of 1965, which took place a mere matter of weeks after the release of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Oldham saw the documentary as "a sort of trial run" for what he hoped would be eventually be a full feature film. That never really came to be, and "Charlie Is My Darling" was only seen in bits and pieces over the years, in the process becoming a much sought-after prize for the Stones collector.
Watching this new 65-minute edit of the film – available on Blu Ray, DVD and deluxe editions, with attendant soundtrack CD and "Live In England ‘65" disc and vinyl LP – it's not difficult to comprehend why Whitehead's film has taken on a mythlike stature over the years. Captured in lovely, appropriately grainy black & white, "Charlie" offers a snapshot of the band in the midst of its first full-blown hurricane of hysterical adulation.
It might be hard to believe as much after all this time, but in 1965, the Rolling Stones were a positively incendiary band whose performances routinely incited riots. The Stones looked and sounded dangerous, and as Whitehead's film makes plain, the kids themselves were exploding with contradictory emotions that spilled over into hysterical crying jags, Beatlemania-level screaming fits, and a form of adulation that didn't seem to be able to make up its mind between expressions of love and violence.
Whitehead blends interviews with live footage of the Irish shows – stunning, particularly on the first night, when the band manages to get through only a handful of tunes before the stage is simply taken over by fans, who attack with vigor. It's mass hysteria, a blend of sexual awakenings among the fans, and the desire on their part to overthrow the tired values of their elders – a revolution of sex, liberty and personal possibility, then, and one that would come to define the decade within a few years.
Particularly chilling is the film-opening interview with the late Brian Jones, who already looks weary, nervous and worn-out by 1965. "Let's face it," Jones says, staring straight into the camera's lens. "The future as a Rolling Stone is very uncertain." Within a few years, Jones would be unceremoniously dumped from the band. He'd end up dead at the bottom of his own swimming pool before reaching his 30th birthday.
The rest of the interviews reveal Jagger as a thoughtful young man clearly in tune – and perhaps somewhat frightened by – the sexual energy of his performances, and their effect on his audience; drummer Charlie Watts as the somewhat bemused "normal guy" in the band, unfazed by all of it, and wishing he could go home to be with his wife, read books and listen to records; and bassist Bill Wyman, who seems to be (mostly) enjoying all of it, pinching himself, and relieved that he'd been able to actualize his childhood dream of becoming a professional musician.
Sadly, Richards was never interviewed in a one-on-one format for the film.
The new cut of "Charlie Is My Darling" looks and sounds excellent, particularly considering how much recording technology has evolved since 1965. This is it, then – the Holy Grail of Stones films documenting their first days as "the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world."
Equally fascinating is "Crossfire Hurricane: The Rise of the Stones," an HBO film by director Brett Morgen which chronicles the band's first decade.
Gone is the wide-eyed innocence of the Whitehead film, as "Crossfire Hurricane" begins in 1972, with Jagger snorting cocaine off a knife blade before heading out onto the stage. This is the Stones in full-on decadence mode. The drugs have moved in; the darkness that was once merely hinted at with bleary eyes and an on-stage thrust of the hips from Jagger has become a deep hedonistic night.
Morgen moves backward from this opening montage, tracing the band's development from cover band to "voice of a generation" to rolling pharmaceutical company, aided by audio-only present-day interviews with the surviving Stones. It's both a disturbing and a fascinating film, one that makes no attempt to frame the band in flattering light, but instead offers a warts, drugs 'n' all view into the band's evolution.
So there you go. Even if you live in a different tax bracket than many of the folks who will catch a 50th Anniversary Rolling Stones concert this year, there's still plenty for you to indulge in.
And they keep on rolling…
"The Rolling Stones: Charlie Is My Darling – Ireland 1965."
Film by Peter Whitehead.
Deluxe box set, ($71.99)?Blu-Ray, DVD, CD and vinyl configurations ($19.99).
"The Rolling Stones: ?Crossfire Hurricane ?– The Birth of the Stones."
HBO film directed by Brett Morgen.
Airing on HBO at 9 p.m. ?Thursday.