How do you even begin to explain 50 years of rock 'n' roll rebellion and revelry? In "Crossfire Hurricane," an HBO documentary about the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards waxes romantic.
"It's almost a fairy story, you know?" he rasps.
Directed by Brett Morgen, "Crossfire Hurricane" whisks viewers away on a journey that covers the Stones' evolution from blues-obsessed outsiders in the early 1960s to a mainstream institution. It's a breezy, boisterous ride -- one that Morgen initially was hesitant to take.
"The Stones mean so much to so many people," he says in a phone conversation. "I didn't want to be the one who (screws) up their story."
He didn't. Though some hard-core devotees will gripe that it's full of gaping holes, "Crossfire Hurricane" -- a title taken from a lyric in "Jumpin' Jack Flash" -- isn't meant to be a rigorous encyclopedic workout, but an immersive, up-close view of a pop-cultural phenomenon.
Thus, we are treated to a whirlwind of scenes that plunge us into the wild-eyed hysteria of those early club gigs. Also intimately recounted are the eerie death of original member Brian Jones, the formation of Richards and Mick Jagger as a songwriting team, and the drug-fueled, hedonistic haze of the '70s. "Crossfire Hurricane" is, essentially, our backstage pass for it all.
In October 2011, Morgen took a call from Jagger, who was keen to make a film marking the band's golden anniversary. The director instantly thought "miniseries," but Jagger wanted none of that.
"He told me that he wasn't interested in a 'rambling, boring, self-indulgent' project," Morgen recalls. Nor did he want to turn it into a "bitch-fest."
Instead, the director who earned an Oscar nomination for 2002's "The Kid Stays in the Picture" hewed to a thematic narrative that followed the Stones' gradual transformation from being, as Jagger puts it, "the band everybody hated to the band everybody loves."
Indeed, the film recaps how they were originally cast as British bad boys -- the "anti-Beatles." But what began as a gimmick became reality as run-ins with the authorities piled up, including the infamous 1967 Redlands drug bust.
"That's when we really put on the black hats," Richards says in the film. "Before that, they were off-gray."
"Crossfire Hurricane" deftly blends vintage concert footage, TV broadcasts, pieces of key songs and clips from other documentaries in with voiced-over highlights from 80 hours of fresh interviews with current and past band members -- all conducted off-screen.
"I'm not a big fan of talking heads," says Morgen, who also wanted to avoid the "distracting" visual juxtaposition of the wrinkled rockers of today and their youthful selves.
As for his impressions of the intimate one-on-one sessions, the filmmaker says reclusive drummer Charlie Watts predictably found them to be a "little like going to the dentist," while Richards proved to be "incredibly lyrical" and Jagger the most forthcoming.
"I think he revealed more of himself than the others did," Morgen says of the Stones' wiry frontman.
One of the film's most compelling sequences recalls the deadly violence of 1969's Altamont concert, previously chronicled in the documentary "Gimme Shelter." Here, Morgen attempts to see the event through the eyes of the Stones, who admitted to being "terrified."
The film, which abruptly ends after the 1978 release of "Some Girls," is unfortunately bereft of bombshell revelations, and doesn't even mention the bitter rift that developed between Jagger and Richards in the '80s. That's the downside of a project done with the participation of its subjects. (The Stones are given producer credits.)
Still, there are a few insights to be gleaned from the interviews. Jagger, for example, talks of how the Stones were basically "method actors." Richards asserts that the song "Midnight Rambler" best captures the essence of his writing partnership with Jagger. And Mick Taylor is frank in his explanation of why he left the band.
One of Morgen's key highlights while working with the band doesn't appear on screen. He was in the room when the Stones got together for the first time in seven years for a private jam. ("What could top that?" he says.) As for the band's future, the director doesn't see them quitting any time soon.
"I was left with the impression that they'll continue to play as long as they can put on a show," he says. "Like a great athlete, they'll hang it up when they can no longer play at the highest level."
X MARKS THE (RANKING) SPOT: "The X Factor" (8 p.m. Thursday, Fox) may not have become the ratings juggernaut Simon Cowell hoped it would, but it has brought a fun twist to the music-contest model. During its elimination episode last week, the show spelled out exactly how each of its 12 finalists ranked in viewer voting. It's the kind of transparency we've craved for years from "American Idol."
The results were intriguing: A middle-aged country crooner (Tate Stevens) led the pack, while a boy band Cowell has hyped as the next big thing (Emblem3) lagged at No. 6. It also became clear that singers who connected emotionally with viewers (No. 2 Carly Rose Sonenclar) were more valued than those relying on staged razzle-dazzle (No. 8 Paige Thomas).
We don't know if "The X Factor" will stick with the new wrinkle, but if it does, it will be interesting to see if the rankings change much from week to week, and/or if they will spur fan bases of certain singers to intensify their efforts.
If there's a downside to the rankings, they could wind up draining some mystery and suspense from elimination nights.
CHANNEL SURFING: Those viewers still hopelessly devoted to "Glee" (9 p.m. Thursday, Fox) are certain to enjoy this week's episode. It has fan favorites Rachel (Lea Michele), Kurt (Chris Colfer) and Santana (Naya Rivera) returning to McKinley High for the school's opening-night production of "Grease."
Contact Chuck Barney at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his TV blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv and follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.ChuckBarney.
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When: 9 p.m. Thursday