Some wise words from the man himself, Sir Michael Philip Jagger, in the year of our lord 2022: “What most documentaries do is repeat the same things over and over that you’ve heard, all the mythologies repeated until they become true,” he says, all business and…Mick-like, kicking off this celebratory docuseries about the band he’s fronted for 60 years. “And it all becomes this sort of cliched box. And the easiest thing to do is just keep repeating it. So I guess we’ll try, when we’re chatting, to expand those boxes.”
He’s right: A lot of documentaries, especially rock documentaries, do just that, reinforcing broad strokes with empty, hyperbolic talking-head analyses from famous modern musicians, who explain, as if people who chose to watch a doc on that band need to be convinced, something along the lines of, “See, back in the [insert decade here] in [insert city here], there was nothing like [insert band here]—they were incredible.” (Two recent exceptions to this annoying narrative trend are Todd Haynes’ revealing stylistic exercise/love letter The Velvet Underground and the brilliant The Beatles: Get Back, admittedly an unfair comparison.) Plus, is there a group more guilty of fostering their rep for rock-excess cliches (and during a lot of years, actively indulging them and becoming something of cliches themselves) than the Stones? So dig deep, Mick. Expand those boxes. Fuck the broad strokes. Just about everything has already been said about the Stones and their lifestyles and influence and longevity, and you can’t beat the lineup of filmmakers—Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Albert and David Maysles—who have already documented them. So please, go for it.
Unfortunately, immediately after the 79-year-old singer makes this point, we cut to recent(ish) footage of the band playing before seas of adoring fans around the world as narrator Sienna Miller proclaims, “The Rolling Stones are the ultimate rock band. A product of their time, they helped create ours.” It’s not wrong, really, it’s just…kind of a disappointingly cliche observation given all this box-expansion business Mick went on about. And then, just as quickly, those famous-musician voiceovers (from Sheryl Crow and Lars Ulrich) show up right on schedule, speaking in enthusiastic generalities about the band’s genius and endurance, as if—nothing against those two—the Stones needed that outside validation.
Which is all to say: If you’re burnt out on rock-doc tropes, this is not the best start. But before we nitpick any more of the first few moments of this docuseries, some context: As the title suggests, My Life As A Rolling Stone aims to give intimate portraits of members of the band—in this case, four of them: Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and the late-great Charlie Watts—with each subject having its own episode. (Interestingly, bassist Bill Wyman, who was in the Stones for 30 years, isn’t even mentioned during the four-hour runtime.)
Things start with Mick and then Keith, because of course they do, focusing the former’s managerial acumen, androgynous fashions, and onstage moves, and the latter’s drug use, love of Black American music, and ability to zone in on in on the perfect riff. If you know this band’s lore and a bit about the Glimmer Twin’s yin-yang songwriting partnership, it covers a lot of well-worn territory, save for the odd choice moment. (Mick witnessing police clashing with anti-war demonstrators in Grosvenor Square in ’68 is a standout, as is he and Keith wandering around an estate on acid.) Which is all fine. Seeing the band early in its career, particularly in bits from the fantastic tour-of-Ireland doc Charlie Is My Darling, is always arresting, and dismissing big storylines and memorable bits from other Stones docs would do a disservice. What forced us to groan, though, was that aforementioned narration, which pops in far too often, neatly transitioning between eras and setting up story arcs and generally building to the theme that every trial, no matter how dark, has only made the band stronger and more triumphant. Segues like “It’s Jagger and Richards who will soon give their friends Lennon and McCartney a run for the money” just kill the momentum, coming off as a noticeably uncool description of a band that made such cool music.
Luckily, the episodes on the other Stones fare better, arguably because their tales aren’t as steeped in legend. Ronnie is painted as the grinning jokester and the guitarist who, once he replaced Mick Taylor, breathed new, fun life into the group. Part of his tale almost feels like a mini-Faces doc, a very welcome change of pace, and there is some entertaining home video of him on tour with that aforementioned band and bumming around “The Wick,” his house in Richmond that, among other things, was the site of a demo recording of “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It),” complete with David Bowie backing vocals.
And then My Life As A Rolling Stone ends, naturally, with an installment on Charlie, who passed away in 2021 and whose role in the band’s mythology can perhaps best be summed up in his own words: “I think the Rolling Stones are great, but I don’t see me in them somehow.” The doc does a solid job of singling out a few specific moments of his deceptively unique approach behind the kit and touches on his addiction during a midlife-crisis, but mostly stays focused on Charlie Watts, the Gentleman, the kind of guy who adored bespoke tailoring and good posture and jazz drumming and heading straight to bed after the gig. There was a point when we almost wished that this was the series, that this was the story we’d spend four hours hearing sans any hagiography and tidy voiceover transitions. But like the man says, you can’t always get what you want.