New Documentary Proves The Rolling Stones Are Still Full of Surprises
We go behind the scenes of My Life as a Rolling Stone, the new documentary that proves rock's most enduring band still has secrets to share.
“Financially dissatisfied, sexually satisfied, philosophically trying,” Mick Jagger said at a press conference leading to the infamous 1969 free concert at Altamont. He had just been asked if he’d finally gotten enough of the elusive stuff he melodically rhapsodizes on in The Rolling Stones’ breakthrough single. My Life as a Rolling Stone may not give fans everything they want on the band who helped change culture, but it fills a need. The four-part EPIX documentary series is an appreciation of 60 years’ service to rock and roll.
Each episode offers an individual portrait of the band’s core four members: Jagger, weaving guitarists Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, and late drummer Charlie Watts. The Rolling Stones founding guitarist Brian Jones, and original bassist Bill Wyman appear in archival footage. My Life as a Rolling Stone was co-directed by Oliver Murray, who helmed the 2019 documentary on Wyman, The Quiet One, and Clare Tavernor, who directed a TV special accompanying Richards’ autobiography Life.
My Life as a Rolling Stone is grounded on newly-filmed interviews with the band, and fully appreciative breakdowns of the music from Tom Waits, Tina Turner, and other stellar players. Executive producer Steve Condie, whose documentary work includes People’s History of Pop, Can You Feel It, and The Story of Skinhead, continued the musical conversation with Den of Geek.
Den of Geek: Do you remember the first time you heard the Rolling Stones?
Steve Condie: I have a story about that, actually. I grew up in a family where the Rolling Stones were on all the time. My dad was an enormous Rolling Stones fan growing up in Scotland. The Rolling Stones and Motown was the sort of backdrop, and the first record I ever bought, the first physical piece of vinyl I ever bought was “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones. I saved up my pocket money and went down to the rather intimidating record store in Edinburgh to buy that record. I’m an enormous music fan and the Rolling Stones were step one for me.
What did you want to see as a Stones fan?
First of all, it felt like a real privilege. They don’t do this very often. They’ve done a few documentaries over the years with some incredibly big-name directors, so it felt a real privilege to be offered the opportunity to do our version of their story. We deliberately chose to do a particular angle on it where we took each member of the band, and hoped that by doing that, we’d give a deeper insight into them as individuals than in a collective bit of storytelling. To capture the alchemy that makes them so successful and has made them so enduring. Both in terms of the musical bond that they share and how the personalities work, and how they sustain this thing called the Rolling Stones.
Both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles reintroduced America to Black music, bringing attention to lesser-known blues artists. Why do you think it took outsiders to make the U.S. appreciate its own?
There’s always been, in Britain, an incredible appetite for Black American music. It has informed British music in lots of ways and in very profound ways. This is just a theory, but there is a sort of purity of appreciation in British, and maybe in other European audiences as well, that maybe isn’t tainted with all the baggage that comes with American history. That is not to say that there is not an enormous and appreciative, heartland American audience for Black music. But maybe it’s not as freighted with the history of race relations in America. We maybe just come at it more with the music than anything else.
You made A Very British Revolution, The British at Work, The British Family, and the documentary says the Stones’ music blends a strong mix of “Americana.” How’s that make you feel in Britannia?
It’s interesting, speaking to the Stones, because obviously they’re four guys from London, but with this incredible attachment to America. As we touch on, particularly in the Keith program, they became prime exponents of American music, which I think not only says a lot about their particular talents and their particular ear, but something about Britain as a country.
We lost an empire and one of the ways we came to terms with that is we became really good at pop culture. We became really good at soaking up American culture in particular, but then reworking it into something that was uniquely British. We didn’t make cars or ships anymore, but we made culture. In order to do that, we had to soak up the best of what was coming across the Atlantic in particular.
I think the Stones are a perfect example of how Britain has negotiated its way into a really favorable cultural position with America, where we just sort of chew on the marrow of the best American stuff and recreate a version of it.
I knew going in the Ron Wood episode was going to be the most entertaining, because it has the Faces and Rod Stewart. When you said England doesn’t build ships, I thought: Ron Wood would, probably, if he heard that.
Ronnie Wood is one of the world’s proper nice guys, right? He is just golden. The moment you meet him, he invites you and you get a hug. He asks you about you. He’s incredibly generous with his time. He makes you a cup of coffee. He drinks a lot of coffee. When someone like Dan Aykroyd, one of the world’s great comedians, comes onto your program and tells you how funny Ronnie Wood is, that tells you quite a lot about the vivacious nature of his personality.
He’s a very talented guy as well. He’s a genuine artist. He’s a painter. And he’s a thoughtful guy. I’m glad you referenced the Faces and Rod because I think people forget how they were very influenced by the Stones. But they create their own sound. And again, they were very British, even if they were drawing on American sounds again.
Ronnie was the salvation of the Stones. He injected an energy and a sense of fun and a sense of purpose again, when he joined the band in the 70s. He was the bridge builder in the ‘80s during what they call “the Cold War.” He got the band back together again. What’s very satisfying is that he saved them and they saved him. Keith in particular, dragged him out of his addiction. When you see him up on stage now, hopefully people will feel a deeper appreciation of why he looks like he’s enjoying it. Because, this is his life’s work now. It’s the thing that he always dreamed of doing.
What’s the main difference in doing a piece with the full endorsement of the band, and the political documentaries like your Profumo scandal doc or Skinhead?
The difference between making a film about something or someone and making it with them is quite significant editorially. For directors and producers, it depends on the subject. The Stones, despite the reputations, were incredibly co-operative in the making. They didn’t draw any red lines and didn’t say “don’t go there.” We were trying to make a film that was a celebration as well. So, it wasn’t our intention to do: [in American announcer voice] That was the Rolling Stones, the truth behind the myth. We wanted to make something that was an appreciation of them.
But those films you make on an authorized basis, to make them still feel authentic and have some journalism in them and a proper sense of inquiry, you need your subjects to appreciate what you’re trying to achieve, and not think of that as a challenge to them. You need to get in a space where you’ve agreed and you’ve got a cooperative spirit. And I think we’ve got that with them, which I really loved and appreciated. They let us in to ask questions that weren’t always comfortable for them.
The Stones were fairly open about both sides of the drug experience. What did you learn about the mix of inspiration and destruction heroin brought to the band as musicians and as rock and roll mythology?
It is such a fascinating mixture, isn’t it? There is no doubt that part of the attraction of the Rolling Stones, as a cultural artifact, is this edginess they have for rock and roll fans around the world for whom rock and roll is the rawest and most pure and adrenaline-filled experience. That relationship with narcotics is part of the attraction, and it’s part of the engine of attraction. The Stones epitomize that in extraordinary ways. The truth is that they looked really cool at their most wasted. There was a wasted elegance of its own.
But at the same time, they were lucky to survive, Ronnie, Keith, Charlie, all of them. With a bit of distance, they now have a reflective and deeper understanding of the peril they put themselves in. And other people. In this film, Ronnie is incredibly open about how hard it was to kick – it took him 20 years.
I was surprised at Charlie Watts’ mid-life crisis.
A lot of people will be very surprised to learn that Charlie had his moment. That’s one of the surprises in that film. He seems so in control, and too detached from that aspect of rock and roll life. But he had his moments partly because his great jazz heroes went through the same thing a generation before.
Keith is, of course, always the most interesting in this regard because he’s a sort of living testament to both the perils and the occasionally inspirational quality of a relationship with narcotics. But, in the film he said something that maybe he hasn’t said before: It’s a rough ride, and maybe it wasn’t worth it.
Keith always played it pretty comfortably, saying it wasn’t for everybody but I could hack it. But this time there was a glint of acknowledgement there when he said that, maybe it wasn’t worth it. I thought that was really interesting. I think they’re all circling around to acknowledge the cost as well as the pleasures of a life that close to drugs.
Was there ever a plan for a condensation of a Bill Wyman/Brian Jones episode?
Not really. We decided to focus on the guys who are in the band right now. When we started the project, Charlie was still with us. Sadly, we lost him last September and therefore couldn’t make a film with him. But we always knew that that was our particular focus.
I was very disappointed there was nothing in there about Ian Stewart. Were there stories that had to be cut or was this a streamlined effort from the beginning?
There were a couple, but we were pretty streamlined about what we were going to focus on. As a fellow rock and roll completist, I feel your pain. Because Ian was an extraordinary figure and too often overlooked. So, I share your opinion and I really wish we’d been able to do more.
Andrew Loog Oldham worked for Brian Epstein before managing the Stones. When Keith says the Beatles were just as nasty as we were, the rivalry seems like friendly complicity.
Do you know what I think? They were closer than people think they were. I think there was a genuine friendship. They were part of a shared milieu. They were in the same moment. I think they also both had really clever management that decided to take them in slightly different directions. Once you establish that there’s the Stones camp and the Beatles camp, it works. It generates a bit of publicity. It fuels the interest and all that sort of thing.
I think they were quite happy to let it be absolutely manufactured conflict. When you listen to Mick talking about when he used to go on TV and he used to think about camera positions, and how you look on camera and things, you realize how smart they were about the business. And the same goes for John and Paul in their own ways and their managements. I think that whole Stones/Beatles thing was carefully manufactured, and worked for both parties. But also, I think, musically they started in a similar place and went in different directions.
The Stones’ first single was a Lennon-McCartney song, which I don’t remember hearing in the documentary.
No, we didn’t cover that. Although we did talk about the relationship with the Beatles, and I love Keith talking about how they were “just like us,” they were a bunch of kids. I like them even more.
I liked Mick saying how Keith was studying the Beatles, I think that cemented his commitment to riffs and hooks.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because, there is a myth about Keith, which is that he was the blues guy, and that’s just all he was ever interested in. But he was just as smart. He knew that if they were going to break beyond doing clubs in London and being the best blues band in London, they had to learn, and they had to learn from their peer group.
Mick and he both talked about how he would break down the first Beatles songs and say, “Ah, that’s how that works.” He was studying them because they were the case study for success. And they wanted success. They knew they had to go beyond being a great blues tribute band. Watching what the Beatles did was the way to do it. I think that’s absolutely fascinating.This relationship between these two bands is such a fascinating story that we’re still obsessing about and adding new information to it. I like to think that little bit is something that people will think, “Oh, wow, I had no idea that that was the case, that Keith was actually an admirer of the Beatles.” He admired the way they were constructing perfect pop songs.
Do you think the Rolling Stones continue to influence society?
I do, actually. I do. The programs were broadcast in the U.K. recently, and we’ve been really surprised by the demographic. Very young, very diverse. Obviously, they have a core die-hard fan base, but they matter to every new generation. I think the streaming experience where people have access to a much deeper catalog of music means people are much more open to discovering music from past eras. I think that’s what’s happening with the Rolling Stones, and that’s why the audience has been notably younger than we anticipated. They are Mount Rushmore-ish in their imagery.
My Life as a Rolling Stone premieres August 7 on EPIX.