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HBO's 'Crossfire Hurricane:' Brett Morgen Traces the History of the Rolling Stones

The “Crossfire Hurricane” that rock ’n’ roll icon Mick Jagger famously sang about being born in nearly half a century ago in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” now aptly serves as the title of a visually enticing and vibrant documentary that offers viewers a glimpse of the chaotic, often surreal world of the Rolling Stones.

(L-R) Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood in the 1970s. Photo from Rolling Stones Archive

Fueled by a treasure trove of archival footage and driven by some of the world’s most enduring pop music by the British group—the Stones, like the Beatles, wrote their biggest hits themselves—the film pulls no punches in documenting the triumphs and tragedies endured by musicians Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Ronnie Wood and lead vocalist Jagger through the decades.

The documentary’s makers chose not to offer a linear history of the band, instead pursuing an immersive approach and tone—at times bordering on POV—to give viewers a feel for being on the front lines of several of the band’s most legendary and infamous escapades. The journey itself began in the early 1960s at about the same time four fellow Brits, the Liverpool Beatles, were emerging onto the world stage.

Brett Morgen, the film’s director, says the idea for the documentary came from Jagger himself. “Mick wanted to do a film to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the band, and he wanted it to feel like a movie. I told him there was no way I could cover 50 years in a movie. It would be merely Cliffs Notes to history. So the challenge was, How do you distill 50 years of the group and tell a timely story in under two hours?”

Morgen’s search for a narrative eventually led to the idea of how the Rolling Stones started out in the early ’60s playing the part of rock music’s bad boys almost by default–especially compared to the far more innocent-imaged Beatles. “In reality the [early] Rolling Stones weren’t bad at all. They had never done drugs, their hair was maybe a sixteenth of an inch longer than the Beatles’, and they had pretty much stayed out of trouble,” Morgen says. “But when they get busted for drugs at the Redlands [concert] in 1967, things sort of changed. After Redlands, Keith [Richards] put on a black hat, bought himself a six-shooter and said that it was ‘Jesse James time.’”

The band went from “playing” the heavy to “becoming” the heavy, Morgen says, and it nearly destroyed them. “Once they stopped using heroin, they were able to move to the next phase of their evolution—and gradually became one of the most respectable rock and roll bands in the world,” says Morgen, who has several other award-winning films on his resume, including The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) and Chicago 10 (2007).

Since virtually all the footage in the film already existed in various conditions and formats, the one remaining variable was the deadline. Morgen had just four months to complete editing, which he accomplished using Avid-based technology. (He says he’s never learned to use Apple Final Cut Pro.) “This may be unique in this form of filmmaking because my last two archival projects took part in the ’60s, when everything was still shot on film, but I color-coded my Avid so I knew what the final source material would be. We have a different color-coding system for stuff shot on film that we can still gather the film backing, and a different color for material shot on film that no longer exists on film.”

The reason for this approach? “If your source material exists on 16mm and you transfer it to high-def, you can create a release print that looks almost better than the original film. But if you’re coming from a video source of something that originated on film but was not transferred to HD, you’re never going get a good look out of it. So I’m into the aesthetics of all this and my preference is to only use those elements which exist today on film,” says Morgen.

Another one of Morgen’s maverick instincts is not believing the primary goal of color correction is to restore content as closely as possible to its original look. “My idea is that I’m going to appropriate this film and color it and tweak it to affect the emotions of the scene being depicted. So for black and white archival material, I went for a very aggressive look that sacrificed details into the blacks to give it a crunchier, high-contrast feel and make it a bit more edgy and aggressive and contemporary.”

Crossfire Hurricane premiered on HBO in November. It will be released on Blu-ray with Morten’s commentary and other special features in early 2013. Worldwide distributor is Eagle Rock Entertainment in London. Production companies include Tremolo Production and Milkwood Films.