Overview: ROLLING STONE: STORIES FROM THE EDGE chronicles the last 50 years of American music, politics and popular culture through the perspective of a magazine that understood rock ‘n’ roll was more than music — it was a cultural force that helped shape America and defined generations. An exhilarating visual and musical experience of the magazine’s history, the film features performances by a dazzling array of artists, including The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Ice-T, and music from some of the cultural icons it heralded, including Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Fleetwood Mac and Chance the Rapper, and showcases the superb, groundbreaking work of its writers, spotlighting Rolling Stone’s impact on society.
The special goes behind the scenes of key stories that shaped America, including the 1972 presidential election as covered by Hunter Thompson, progenitor of “gonzo journalism”; the revealing inside account of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst; the unique relationship between John Lennon and the magazine from 1967 to 1980, including Annie Leibovitz’s final photo of Lennon for the magazine, taken right before his death; the Ice-T “Cop Killer” song controversy; and the retracted story about a rape on the campus of the University of Virginia. Directed by Alex Gibney and Blair Foster, the documentary marks the magazine’s milestone 50th Anniversary and provides an engrossing inside look at how the magazine helped shape the zeitgeist and has endured for a half-century.
Expectations: Expectations are soaring high for this documentary, but it is going to be difficult to take in the 4-hour program. Likely I will watch it over on HBOGo and take it in an hour at a time. I don’t want to miss anything. Why the eagerness? Simple, I like everything about Rolling Stone magazine. I like its concept, its cover shots, its news & views; I even have its website in my favorites. If you want to know about music, artists, trends and pop culture Rolling Stone is one of the best. I’ll try not to let all that bias my opinion of the documentary.
Gut Reaction: I loved it. I loved it enough to watch it twice. Admittedly, I loved Part I better than Part II just because it was my era of music and history more so than the latter half. It had me hooked at the very beginning with the guitar licks of Jimi Hendrix. Now the piece couldn’t highlight every issue of the magazine but the early issues were crucial for establishing what the magazine was about. It wasn’t just about ‘rock and roll music,’ but also the ‘rock and roll state of mind’ and if you don’t know what that is then the magazine & this film don’t mean much to you.
I like directors Gibney & Foster’s approach. We don’t have talking heads of all kinds offering up appreciative kudos about what RollingStone means to them. Instead, we have the employees of the publication talk about the journey and reflect on interviews, articles and photographs. It starts with talk of the Plaster Casters and Ike & Tina Turner and through the birth of Hip-Hop, Boy Bands and points in between. It also touches on politics and social ills that rocked the country. Rehashing the stories of say, Jimmy Swaggart or Bill Clinton, would be lengthy and dull in a normal context, but seeing and hearing the great language of the honored magazine in question makes it all good. I love the way these guys write, the questions they ask and the thoughts they raise. So, I didn’t mind Johnny Depp voicing Hunter S. Thompson or any of the writers reading over their own texts from articles past. I preferred that over numerous unrelated celebrities weighing in. So the piece was solid in matching image, graphics words and themes.
Bonus: Directors Alex Gibney and Blair Foster offered praise for Rolling Stone. Here are excerpts from a Q & A.
HBO: Beyond the magazine hitting its 50th anniversary, why is Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge an important story to tell now?
Alex Gibney: We’re at a critical moment in our culture, in terms of a need for good, in-depth, opinionated journalism. Celebrating the magazine — what the magazine’s done over the past 50 years — is a way of saying this is important.
Blair Foster: I think a lot of younger people don’t realize and appreciate what Rolling Stone has done; what it’s contributed to journalism. They do great articles about musicians, but it’s not just about musicians. I think its key right now for the younger generation to appreciate journalism in general.
HBO: What drew you to the magazine as a cultural object and documentary subject?
Alex Gibney: In some of the films I’ve worked on, I’ve tried to take a lead from what Rolling Stone does. That is to say, to make authored films that are honest about saying something I think, yet at the same time are rigorous in their journalism — and hopefully funny, and entertaining, and full of music. That kind of vitality, that’s what first turned me on about the magazine, back when I was just reading it for the rock and roll interviews.
Blair Foster: For me, it combined all the things I love — music, politics and popular culture — in a way that you can’t find anywhere else.
HBO: To your mind, what is unique about Rolling Stone journalism?
Alex Gibney: It’s suddenly combining the investigative piece with the novel. For example, Hunter Thompson, (author and Rolling Stone writer) was a novelist working inside the skin of the journalist, and yet at the same time taking his reporting very seriously. If you read him carefully, he’s telling you what he’s observing, but he’s taking you into fictional territory to depict things in a more accurate way than some kind of literal description.
In Conclusion: I didn’t go into scene-by-scene details of this two-part documentary but tried to state how Rolling Stone has captured the rebellious, revolutionary thoughts that have always surfaced through the decades and how that has been coupled with the artistic sounds of any given time. I herald Jann Wenner and his publication and relish and live, or so I feel, the ‘Rock & Roll mindset’. I also endorse this deep dive into the magazine’s 50-year history. ROLLING STONE: STORIES FROM THE EDGE proves to be one of my favorite documentaries that HBO has given us this year. Long live Rock & Roll and Rolling Stone.