Fifty years ago, a young journalist and recent Berkeley graduate named Jann Wenner started a counterculture newspaper heavily focused on rock and roll. In commemoration of this golden anniversary, Wenner is the subject of a recent biography, “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine,” which delves deeply into Rolling Stone’s evolution from hippie rag to glossy broadsheet and the internal struggles and controversies along the way.
While I am sure that side of things is very interesting and I have every intention of reading the book, Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge, the new two-part HBO documentary premiering November 6 and 7, smartly keeps most of its focus between the covers of the actual magazine. There is a little bit of behind-the-scenes about the magazine’s founding, its initial editorial approach and philosophy, and on Wenner himself — with a tip of the cap to Wenner’s wife Jane, who despite being instrumental in the origin story, tends to be forgotten — and as time marches on, the magazine’s 1977 move to New York. But for the most part, the documentary plays as a greatest-hits anthology of Rolling Stone’s best and most influential stories, a sort of filmic adaptation of the material presented with contemporary film footage, the photos from the articles, remembrances by the authors, and of course the text of the articles, both shown in print as they appeared in the magazine and read aloud by actor Jeff Daniels.
This is a very entertaining approach, and as the articles accumulate and move through time they show the way the magazine has evolved over its fifty year run. The first half is devoted to the first decade-plus, from 1967 to 1980, when its cultural influence was strongest. Stories include the 1968 “Groupie Issue,” including a feature on the world famous Plaster Casters; “The World’s Greatest Heartbreaker,” a 1971 story on Ike and Tina Turner, including a photo tour of their home, and a 1970 interview with Grace Slick and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, both by Ben Fong-Torres; John Lennon’s cranky, confrontational 1971 interview with Jann Wenner, his first major interview after breaking with the Beatles (which I personally read about a thousand times).
Interestingly, director Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief; Taxi to the Dark Side) does not show any of the many writers, editors, photographers, or rock stars in their aged present-day state, with a few exceptions: Jann Wenner is shown many times talking about the good old days, as is noted rock photographer Annie Liebovitz, but despite their participation and voiceover discussing their contributions, Ben Fong-Torres, Cameron Crowe, Tom Wolfe, Jon Landau, and even Bruce Springsteen are hidden from the camera.
Crowe, who of course went on to become a film director (Say Anything, Almost Famous), discusses his growth as a writer through his efforts to get Led Zeppelin, who famously hated the magazine after it published an unkind review of their first record, to play ball for a cover story, and Wenner called the 16-year-old (!!) freelancer in for a meeting, where he urged Crowe to study Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Tom Wolfe, author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Bonfire of the Vanities, talks about how Rolling Stone “had taken over from Esquire as the home of the New Journalism,” which sets the stage for Hunter S. Thompson and an extended sequence on Thompson’s coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign and the subsequent Nixon administration. Thompson’s passages are the only ones that get their own dedicated reader — Johnny Depp, naturally — and are embroidered with film footage of Thompson himself talking about his methods (“I never said [Democratic presidential candidate Ed Muskie] was taking Ibogaine, I said there was a rumor in Milwaukee that he was… I started the rumor, sure. My journalism is very accurate.”
Late ‘70s stories include David Weir and Howard Kohn’s 1976 insider profile of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, who had kidnapped and recruited the heiress and then lived as fugitives after a bank robbery, and a daylight shootout; a 1977 feature on the Sex Pistols and their huge influence on the course of rock music by Charles M. Young; and the classic 1981 issue, often called the best in the 50-year run of the magazine, dedicated to the life, influence, and heartbreaking murder of John Lennon, who had posed for Annie Liebovitz on the afternoon of December 8, 1980, three days after granting Wenner another expansive interview, before being shot late that night by Mark David Chapman.
Part two begins with the magazine’s 1977 move to New York and Elvis Presley’s death, before moving on to the magazine’s transition to focusing on culture, rather than just rock music. Great stories include Mikal Gilmore’s 1979 profile of The Clash; Hunter S. Thompson’s return from self-imposed exile to cover the lurid divorce trial of Roxanne Pulitzer, which in many ways defined the culture of the ‘80s; Lawrence Wright’s coverage of the downfall of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart; the famous cover story on rapper Ice-T (who, oddly, is the only artist who gets to appear on camera in his present form) and the controversy around his song “Cop Killer”; the five-way interview with Wenner, Thompson, William Grieder, P.J, O’Rourke, and candidate Bill Clinton; Britney Spears’ many covers, leading up to her 2008 breakdown; Michael Hastings’ profile of General Stanley McChrystal, “The Runaway General,” whose derisive quotes about President Obama led to his removal from command of operations in Afghanistan; the disgrace of the retracted UVA story; and up to Matt Taibbi’s coverage of the Trump campaign.
“Rock and Roll works as common experience and private obsession,” Wenner theorizes toward the end of part one, and I can’t think of a more fitting description both of rock itself and of Rolling Stone’s editorial approach, particularly in its early years. It’s a fascinating look back at one of our greatest cultural touchstones.
Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge premieres November 6 and 7 on HBO and will be available the same night on-demand.