60 years into their apparently neverending career, the Rolling Stones have done it all. Getting their start as surly yet fresh faced doyens of the British Invasion, they would become rock n’ roll outlaws whispered about in hushed tones before maturing into a multi-million dollar global corporation. They’ve released hit singles, hit albums, hit double albums, gone on record-breaking concert tours, and, between concert films and documentaries, have a filmography equal to that of the storied directors that clamber to work with them. What’s left for the so-called “Greatest rock n’ roll band in the world”? A television series, that’s what.
The 4-part My Life As A Rolling Stone premiered on the BBC in July and now makes its US debut on Epix; the first episode is also available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Each episode takes you inside the public and private lives of the band’s four key members. Originally a 5-piece group, the number of “official” Stones has sadly now dropped to three, following the death last year of founding drummer Charlie Watts, who is memorialized in the show’s finale. Starting with a bigger bang, the series kicks off with a profile of legendary lead singer Mick Jagger.
A chorus of celebrities, from Sheryl Crow to Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, weigh in to shower Jagger with praise. Even longtime creative partner and sometime frenemy Keith Richards dubs him, “the best front man in the business.” While Jagger unconvincingly says he doesn’t care about his image in archival footage, new interviews shot for the series find him in a private office bedecked with a marble fireplace and expensive vintage guitars fretting over the tendency of music documentaries to become a “cliché box and the easiest thing is to just keep repeating that.“
“It’s not only about music,” Jagger says after claiming he’s not really a control freak, again, rather unconvincingly. Stones guitarist Ron Wood, however, says that besides being their singer, Jagger serves as the Stones’ “controller and an organizer.” Often blamed for the group’s crasser commercial endeavors, Jagger also kept the group alive, both literally and figuratively, during its many ups and downs which included drug busts, deaths, addiction and tax exile. Besides singing and writing and performing, he keeps a keen eye on stage sets and merchandise, understanding their presentation to the world is as vital as the spiky chords clawing their way out Richards’ Telecaster.
Photo: Everett Collection
Having turned 79 last month, Jagger has little time for the legend surrounding the band. “It’s all bullshit, the mythology,” he says, deflating many of them throughout the episode. Rather than being blues purists, he claims the Stones were always a rock n’ roll band. Their bad boy reputation? Just a marketing strategy to differentiate them from the Beatles, who Richard‘s says were “filthy swine,” just like them. He’s equally unsentimental about his singing. “It’s OK. It does it’s job,” he says and counts himself lucky to still be able to sing the songs he wrote when he was 19.
It’s a bit of protesting too much, methinks. They might have behaved “like yobs” for the headlines but rebellion came to them naturally. Sure, they liked their Chuck Berry as much as their Muddy Waters, but it was also the Stones that insisted blues great Howlin’ Wolf appear with them on Shindig. He may have been the least drugged out member of the Rolling Stones, which granted, is a low bar, but that makes him no less authentic. His devotion to blues and R&B was total and he learned to move on stage and command an audience via firsthand lessons from Little Richard, James Brown and Tina Turner.
1969 saw the Stones burying founding member Brian Jones and surviving the chaos at Altamont. With the Beatles demise, they were now the preeminent rock band in the world but were cash poor from bad business deals and heavy taxes in the UK. A former student at the London School of Economics, Jagger took over steering the band’s commercial fortunes and was good at it. While his bandmates battled drug addiction, Jagger kept his eye on the bottom line, seeing the Rolling Stones as not just a rock band but a business and a brand.
At the beating heart of the Rolling Stones is the creative partnership of Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. Encouraged to write their own material by manager Andrew Loog Oldham, the former school chums would go on to compose some of the most famous rock n’ roll songs of all time. Though their relationship has had its ups and downs over the years, Richards says they’re mostly just “storms in teacups.” They’re friends and business partners with a common goal. Again, shooting down the myth of rock groups being a band of brothers, Jagger says, “I actually have a brother. It’s not like being with Keith at all.”
At almost 80 years old, no one has a right to look as good as Mick Jagger or dance across the stage with such ease. Though he hasn’t always seemed the most warm and cuddly Stone, there’s no denying his talent, intelligence, and charm. Being a Stones fan since the age of 2 and having watched and reviewed the majority of their cinematic output for this very website, there’s not much about the band I haven’t seen before. However, by focusing on the band members individually, My Life As A Rolling Stone finds a new way to tell a story you’ve heard before. I’m excited to see where the series goes from here.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.