How ‘My Life as a Rolling Stone’ Aims to Debunk the Band’s Myth
Whether or not you believe the Rolling Stones are the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band, one thing is for certain: They changed the face of popular music. Among Mick Jagger's jaw-dropping moves, Keith Richards' down-and-dirty guitar playing, Ronnie Wood's multi-instrumental talent and the late Charlie Watts' deceptively sophisticated style of drumming, the Stones have been "turning people on for 60 years," as Richards' puts it in a trailer for a new four-part series from Epix.
Each episode of My Life as a Rolling Stone focuses on a member of the band to demystify the Rolling Stones and their larger-than-life brand through their words while accentuating their craft – including Jagger's intuitive sense of showmanship, Richards' crucial knowledge that sometimes less is more when it comes to chords, Wood's ability to weave in and out of a song, and Watts' unshakeable rhythm, a human metronome. The series also features commentary from other acts the band has inspired, like Tina Turner, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde, Lars Ulrich and Joe Walsh, among others.
UCR spoke with executive producer Steve Condie about the making of My Life as a Rolling Stone, which debuts Aug. 7 on Epix.
The history of the Stones is incredibly vast. What did your road map look like when you first began working on this project?
Let's be honest, you would need 10 parts to do the complete version of the Rolling Stones story. So part one of our road map was really trying to determine two things: What aspects of the story do we feel have got [the] most value for an audience now? And secondly, how do we do this? You know, do we do the kind of like, A to Z Stones story? Or do we try and find another way to approach this? – which is why we decided to do them as the members of the band, and to look at their journeys, their experiences, try and help the audience understand more about their artistry, and their creativity and what makes them special. ... I guess one of the really big tasks was managing the archive. You know, 60 years of archive is a lot to work your way through, right? [Laughs.] So that was an enormous task, and we had a team working on that from very early on ... but the Stones were incredibly cooperative with letting us use their archive, and there's actually a lot of footage in there that's basically never been seen before.
And yet, even though you had each episode focus on a different band member, there was still coverage of people like Brian Jones, Bill Wyman – other characters who were important in the Stones' evolution. They don't get lost here.
They don't get lost. ... There's always things that you'd wish you'd done more of. Some of those guys, you know, I wish we'd had room for a little bit more of a mention but, at the same time, it's a hard task fitting all of this into four 60-minute films.
I have to say, I think the Ronnie Wood episode is my favorite. His story sometimes gets overshadowed by the others, but it was great to have the spotlight just be on him. It drove home how he seemed to be the exact right person to join the Stones at the exact right time.
Yeah, I'm glad you picked up on that because I think you're right. Ronnie, maybe for a lot of people who kind of view the Stones in a — not superficial, but a slightly distant way — he's like, "the other guy," right? But he's been really vital to the band and remains so, actually. As you say, when he came into the band, he was that injection of energy and fun, and a sense of purpose again that they absolutely needed when they were all a bit strung out. And also in the '80s, you know, when they were going through what they called "the Cold War," when things weren't going so great in the band, he was the bridge builder. And it was incredible to hear Joyce Smyth, who's the manager of the band, saying: without Ronnie, there's no Rolling Stones. That's amazing. And of course, the other thing is that he saves them, but they save him.
Speaking of those other, non-Stones voices in the film, I found it interesting that the only real "talking head" footage we see is that of the band members. Everyone else is audio-only. What made you decide to do it that way?
That was quite a difficult decision to make, essentially turning down an on-camera interview with, I don't know, Slash or, you know, Jon Bon Jovi or Tina Turner. But we decided that we really wanted to make the films feel intimate. And we really wanted to let the audience feel like they were lensing in on these personalities and their characteristics and their qualities. And I think that only having them [the Stones] on camera adds to that sense of intimacy, and closeness and connection that you have with them. And, you know, as wonderful as it might have been to have all those — that fantastic cast list that we assembled — you would spend half the film kind of wondering about, "Wow, Jon Bon Jovi still looks great at what age he is," rather than thinking about Keith Richards, right?
Watch the Trailer for 'My Life as a Rolling Stone'
I'd like to ask about Charlie Watts. How far along were you in making this film when he died?
Round about this time last year was when we started, kind of, talking in earnest about the project. We were kind of initially planning to start filming ... so obviously that knocked things back a few months as everybody had to deal with that and the guys had to decide if they were still going to go on tour and they did, and all of that sort of stuff. So it had a material effect on our plans. But what was interesting was that it didn't really make anybody think we shouldn't be doing this. In fact, in a strange way, it made them think we should be doing this because we want to show their appreciation of him. They wanted a program that would be devoted to him, in which they themselves, Ronnie, Keith and Mick, could say what they felt about Charlie, but also be an opportunity for a broader audience to understand this extraordinary guy. It was a difficult period for them, obviously. It threw things into a little bit of doubt, but in the end, I think we all came around to the feeling that, actually, you know what? We've got to do this.
I thought to myself before I pressed play on the Charlie Watts episode, "Oh, man, this is probably going to make me sad," but I didn't end up feeling that way. It was really powerful to see Jagger, Richards and Wood speaking so tenderly about their friend — but it didn't feel depressing.
Yeah, we didn't want to make an obituary. We wanted to make an appreciation and something that showed the complexity of his personality.
Was there anything new or surprising that you learned about the Rolling Stones that you didn't know before?
I think there's a couple of things. I think it's really fascinating how Mick talks about age like 19, he went on television thinking about camera angles, and you realize how smart he was about pop culture, right from the get-go. ... Of course, they were raw and edgy and cheeky and subversive, and all those things, but Mick was also very, very clever, and I think that was really interesting. I think that the way that Keith engages with the thing that people talk about most with Keith, which is him surviving years of substance abuse — I think he came at it with an honesty and a reflective quality that I thought was very powerful. I think he does say a couple of things in our interviews that maybe he hasn't really edged to before, actually.
At the beginning of the film, Jagger says to the interviewer that he wants to avoid cliches and not rehash the same myths that have surrounded the Stones for years. Do you think this film is successful in doing that? In other words, what makes this film different from others?
I think there's a sort of lazy story about the Stones that they were a blues band, right? And, you know, thank goodness for them. Their music was a tribute to the American music, the black American music that they loved. And that is certainly true. But ... as Mick said, "we were more than that. We were a rock band, we were a pop band, we were an everything band." And then even to have Keith kind of reinforce that, who is the keeper of the flame, by talking about not only his admiration of the Beatles but how the Beatles were a model for them. I think that's one myth that the Stones just were this kind of blues band who then sort of rumbled on into doing other things. You realize that from quite early on, they had aspirations and ambitions to be more than a blues band.
Is there anything you'd like people to know about My Life as a Rolling Stone before they watch it?
We talked about how we used the guys on camera, and everyone else was an interview, but I think that as these interviews fly by, I think that for an American audience, the kind of cast that we assembled for it is a real tribute to the Stones actually. When you think about generationally, and how ... incredibly significant these figures are in the American musical imagination, the rock imagination, in particular, I think that their presence in the programs lays to rest any doubts anyone might have about the importance of the Rolling Stones if anyone had any doubts. If anyone wanted to argue about the merits of the Rolling Stones, the fact that that cast list — Tina Turner through to, you know, Bon Jovi, etc. — were willing to give up their time and talk about the band, I think it shows you just how significant they are.
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