How ‘My Life as a Rolling Stone’ aims to debunk the band’s myth

Regardless of whether you believe in The Rolling Stones is the world’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll band, one thing is certain: they changed the face of popular music. Among Mick Jaggers jaw-dropping moves, Keith Richards‘ dirty guitar playing, Ronnie Wood‘s multi-instrumental talent and the late Charlie Watts‘ deceptively sophisticated drumming style, 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.

Every episode of My Life as a Rolling Stone focuses on one member of the band to demystify the Rolling Stones and their larger brand through their words while highlighting their craft – including Jagger’s intuitive sense of showmanship, Richards’s crucial knowledge that less is more when it comes to chords, Woods ability to weave in and out of a song and Watts’ unwavering rhythm, a human metronome. The series also features commentary from other acts that the band has inspired, e.g Tina Turner, Jon Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Chrissie Hynde, Lars Ulrich and Joe Walshamong other.

UCR spoke with executive producer Steve Condie about the making of My Life as a Rolling StoneWhich one debuts Aug. 7 on Epix.

The history of the Stones is incredibly extensive. What did your roadmap look like when you started working on this project?
Let’s be honest, you need 10 parts to make the complete version of the Rolling Stones story. So part one of our roadmap was really trying to determine two things: What aspects of the story do we feel we got [the] most valuable to an audience now? And secondly, how do we do it? You know, we do that A to Z Stones kind of story? Or are we trying to find another way to approach this? – that’s why we decided to make them as members of the band, and to look at their journeys, their experiences, try to 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 through, right? [Laughs.] So it was a huge undertaking and we had a team working on it from very early on … but the Stones were incredibly cooperative in letting us use their archive and there’s actually a lot of footage in there that pretty much never has been seen before.

And yet, even if you focused each episode on a different band member, there was still coverage of people like Brian Jones, Bill Wyman – other characters who were important in the Stones’ development. They won’t get lost here.
They don’t get lost. … There are always things you wish you had done more of. Some of the guys, you know, I wish we had room for a little more mention, but at the same time, it’s a difficult task to fit all of that into four 60-minute movies.

I have to say, I think the Ronnie Wood episode is my favorite. His story is sometimes overshadowed by others, but it was great to have the focus on him. It drove home how he seemed to be just the right person to join the Stones at exactly the right time.
Yes, I’m glad you brought that up because I think you’re right. Ronnie, maybe for a lot of people who look at the Stones in a – not superficial, but a little distant way – he’s like “the other guy”, right? But he has been really vital to the band and actually still is. 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 little stressed. And also in the ’80s, you know, when they were going through what they called “the cold war,” when things weren’t going so well in the band, he was a bridge builder. And it was incredible to hear Joyce Smyth, who is the manager of the band, say: without Ronnie there is no Rolling Stones. It is fantastic. And of course the other thing is that he saves them, but they save him.

Speaking of the 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. All others are for audio only. What made you decide to do it that way?
It was a pretty tough 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 that they sensed these personalities and their characteristics and their qualities. And I think that only to have 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 would have been to have all of them — the amazing cast that we’ve assembled — you’d spend half the movie wondering, “Wow, Jon Bon Jovi still looks good in what age is he ,” instead of thinking about Keith Richards, right?

Watch the trailer for ‘My Life as a Rolling Stone’

I want to ask about Charlie Watts. How far along were you in making this film when he died?
Last year was around this time when we kind of started talking seriously about the project. We initially planned to start filming … so of course it set things back a few months as everyone had to deal with it and the guys had to decide if they still wanted to go for a walk and they did, and all that kind of stuff. So it had a significant effect on our plans. But the interesting thing was that it didn’t really make anyone think that we shouldn’t do this. In fact, in a strange way, it led them to believe that we should do this because we want to show their appreciation to him. They wanted a program that would be dedicated to him, where they themselves, Ronnie, Keith and Mick, could say what they felt about Charlie, but also be an opportunity for a wider audience to understand this extraordinary guy. It was obviously a difficult period for them. It threw things into doubt, but in the end I think we all came to the feeling that you know what? We have to do this.

I thought to myself before I pressed play on the Charlie Watts episode, “Oh, man, this is going to make me sad,” but I didn’t end up feeling that way. It was really powerful to see Jagger, Richards and Wood talking so tenderly about their friend – but it didn’t feel depressing.
Yeah, we didn’t want to do an obituary. We wanted to do an appreciation and something that showed the complexity of his personality.

Was there anything new or surprising you learned about the Rolling Stones that you didn’t know before?
I think there are a few things. I think it’s really fascinating how Mick talks about age like 19, he was going on television and thinking about camera angles and you realize how smart he was with pop culture right from the start. … Of course they were raw and edgy and sassy and subversive and all that stuff, but Mick was also very, very smart, and I think that was really interesting. I think the way that Keith engages with the thing that people talk about the most with Keith, which is that he’s survived years of drug addiction – I think he came at it with an honesty and a reflective quality that I found very powerful. I think he says a few things in our interviews that maybe he hasn’t really hit on before, actually.

At the beginning of the film, Jagger tells the interviewer that he wants to avoid clichés and not revive the same myths that have surrounded the Stones for years. Do you think this movie succeeds in doing that? In other words, what makes this movie different from others?
I think there’s kind of a lazy story about the Stones that they were a blues band, right? And thank God 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 alt band.” And then even having Keith reinforce who the keeper of the flame is by not only talking about his admiration for The Beatles but how the Beatles were a model for them. I think it’s a myth that the Stones were just the kind of blues band that kind of plodded on and did other things. You realize that from very early on they had hopes and ambitions to be more than a blues band.

Is there anything you would like people to know about My Life as a Rolling Stone before they see it?
We talked about how we used the guys on camera and everyone else was an interview, but I think when these interviews fly by, I think for an American audience, the kind of cast that we assembled for it, a real tribute to actually the stones. When you think about generations and how … incredibly significant these figures are in the American musical imagination, the rock imagination, in particular, I think their presence in the shows dispels any doubts anyone might have about the importance of the Rolling Stones if anyone was in doubt. If anyone wanted to argue the merits of the Rolling Stones, the fact that that cast — Tina Turner up to, you know, Bon Jovi, etc. — were willing to give up their time and talk about the band, I think that shows you , how significant they are.

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