I’ve seen the Rolling Stones (not in concert, but still) and thought I knew a lot about them already. Steve Condie, executive producer of the four-part docuseries, “My Life as a Rolling Stone,” soon set me straight.
The docuseries not only has unseen footage and exclusive stories from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood (with footage on the late Charlie Watts as well), it has new interviews with the band members and artists inspired by the band; the first episode on Jagger premiered on EPIX August 7. Three other episodes will follow, with Richards on August 14, Wood on August 21, and Watts on August 28. Condie, who worked previously on documentaries about Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, joined with Mercury Studios working on the episodes for a year. He was a delight to talk to and entirely forthcoming and insightful about the band’s struggles and triumphs.
After maneuvering around a packed schedule, Condie was able to have a sit-down with me to talk about the staggering fame and longevity of the band, and about what made the Rolling Stones different than most bands still around today.
Moviehole: How long has the documentary been in the making?
Steve Condie: We just started the project over a year ago and sadly Charlie died, so we had to work out what to do after that, we got started again at the end of last year, it was slightly tight.
Moviehole: How will this documentary be different from others about the Rolling Stones?
SC: We decided early on that we’d focus on each member of the band to get a proper appreciation of their personality, character and artistry; we have a good look at them as individuals, to understand the alchemy of what makes them special. If you do a series on the Rolling Stones, there is always a danger you lose the personalities of the individuals in the band, because you’re talking about them as a collective. As well as tackling critical moments in their career chronology, we’ve also focused on the music and particular aspects of the sound that each band member contributed. We wanted to appreciate their musical gifts as well.
Moviehole: What was the most surprising thing you learned?
SC: They all have their own surprises; the thing that surprised me about Mick, is that he talks about being 19 years old and he would prepare for TV appearances and know where the camera would be, how he would look. From very early on, he was very savvy about how to communicate with the audience to project an idea about where the Rolling Stones were.
With Keith there were surprises as well, you realize under the exterior of the rock god that everyone aspires to be, there’s a really shy, withdrawn and quite anxious guy; people talk about how on earth are you still alive. It stems from how he responded from being a really shy guy from a tiny town outside of London and then he is propelled into worldwide fame and he was desperately trying to cope with it. He’s very honest with his relationship with drugs and what they meant to him and how he feels about it now, and in part how they were a refuge for this young shy guy. It gets past the stereotype of who Keith is. With Ronnie, what surprised people is how important he is to the Rolling Stones and has been ever since he joined them. Joyce Smyth, the manager of the band, says without Ronnie there would be no Rolling Stones; what she means is when he joined the band, it was at a low ebb in the 70s, and he interjected energy, a sense of fun and purpose. Again, in the 80s when the band wasn’t having such a happy time, Ronnie built bridges, and encouraged the band to get back on the road and get back together. He pulled them out when they may have run out of steam, and the Stones pulled Ronnie out of his addictions along with his family. Ronnie saved them and they saved him.
Charlie is full of surprises, the most surprising person to ever be a rock star, he really didn’t like rock music — he’d be listening to Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker, he’s a jazz guy. We have lovely details in the film about his obsession with jazz, of how it influenced his playing style and made the Stones different from other bands, how it made them a band you dance to. That’s the defined difference between the Stones and the Beatles, you love the Beatles but you dance to the Rolling Stones, they make you move, and that was Charlie. That extended to Charlie’s sense of style, the way he dressed, and he has one of the most incredible collections of jazz memorabilia. He hated being on tour and just wanted to be at home with his family.
Moviehole: And Charlie ended up getting into drugs later for a time?
SC: You know who pulled him out of drugs? Keith Richards. Keith said to Charlie, “This isn’t really you, man.”
Also, we show two old friends of Charlie’s go into a lockup where he kept all this stuff, and they pulled out a carrying case and inside it was an antique tea set! The tea set travelled on every tour with Charlie, it’s a million miles away from the rock and roll lifestyle. Charlie was obsessed with details and had an amazing sense of style and who he was.
Moviehole: How did you get involved with this doc?
SC: I got lucky in my career, after the Thatcher documentary, I did the Blair documentary, music culture and arts. A reason I particularly did this and joined Mercury Studios, it was part of Universal Music, that’s where it all comes together. One reason I joined Mercury Studios was the possibility of doing a Rolling Stones documentary.
Moviehole: From the doc, how has the group held together for so long, it’s almost like a brotherhood? Other bands seem to split up over one small thing.
SC: Such an interesting question — when we interviewed people they used the brotherhood description, and there are a couple of things: the experiences they went through that forged a closeness that is really remarkable, and apart from family not many relationships have lasted as long. They went from being a bunch of young guys to incredible highs to really scathing lows, they were always together. Also the music, the joy they get from their art. All I can offer is thoughts; Mick in his films says we’re not like brothers, I have a brother, it’s not the same. Maybe from the outside it looks like that but for Mick, it’s something else, it’s an incredible bonded friendship. They have lived lives of incredible pressure, to succeed and stay at the top, I think that pressure is pretty unique.
The music that they made, has created a sort of emotional bond between them, the joy they take in playing it and connecting to fans through the music, is irresistible and unbreakable.
When you see them on stage, even now, their joy is infectious and sends a bolt of energy and lightning out to the audience.
Moviehole: What were the guys like to talk to?
SC: I really appreciate how generous they were with their time — we asked them to be reflective and obviously you are asking about things that happened 50 odd years ago — they went away, thought about it and their memories, they did their research and they came into the interviews committed to trying to give us some reflections. They are very committed to their craft, they brought that same spirit to the film that they bring to the rehearsals in their shows. I think everyone recognizes that 60 years is pretty amazing, that it’s a moment to be reflective, losing Charlie also has everyone in the band feeling reflective and appreciative, understanding for their millions of fans around world, and there is an appetite for the guys to reflect on extraordinary careers and lives.
Moviehole: What do you hope audience will take away from this?
SC: Hopefully a lot of fun and pleasure, like as soon you hear the Stones track, you start moving. Someone told me they watched the programs in the UK and realized at their wedding they played a lot of Stones songs. So it’s a pleasure and nostalgic, hopefully people will think, I’ve never heard that about the band. I think people will have a sense of revelation about it as well. I hope they enjoy it as a visual treat, there’s a lot of footage that has never been seen before. Particularly in the years of the 70s in their strutting finest, like hanging out with Tina Turner backstage and on the tour bus in America.
Moviehole: What other things surprised you about Charlie?
SC: He’s really deep, you’re surprised at how he stands slightly apart from the Rolling Stones, he talks about them as if they are a thing he’s associated with. He is the musical foundation of the band, he’s made it possible for the band to be a blues band, pop band, and then be a psychedelic band, or a disco band, his drumming allows them to be quite the chameleon. They’d be surprised that a guy who folded his socks is a rock and roller, he had a very particular lifestyle while the rest of them were getting trashed in the hallway, and he was sitting in his room. He drew a sketch of every hotel room he ever stayed in.
We will see some of his lovely sketches, like a vase or doorknob. And there’s a great story in the Ronnie film when Ronnie was strung out on crack and cocaine and Keith was very angry, the two were having a punch up in the room and they stumbled into Mick’s room next door, and the two of them (Mick and Charlie) were playing a board game! Charlie was married for 56 years, so far from multiple marriages and domestic drama, he loved his life as a English gentleman, it’s a very captivating and charming story.
Moviehole: It was so interesting to find that Mick went to the London School of Economics and was studying to be a journalist or politician.
SC: You sometimes go into a room with someone, and you just know whatever they do in life, they’d be really good at it. He could’ve gone to London School of Economics and done anything with his life, and he would’ve been a success. He had a passion to perform and be a big showoff, but you can’t do what he’s been doing for 60 years if you’re just a showoff, you have to have a passion and find a new way to connect with the audience. He pushes the Rolling Stones forward, says we can do this kind of music, appeal to this kind of audience. I think he’s a cultural visionary. When history comes to judge him, we’ll see him as a really important figure in creating rock and roll, not just the Rolling Stones. His persona, stage presence, he wrote the book about being a front man and what a band does across a career and how it survives and thrives, he’s one of the creators of stadium rock. I think he’s a visionary figure.
Moviehole: Any projects in the pipeline?
SC: I wish I could tell you, Mercury Studios is new, and the Rolling Stones docuseries is our first big project, but we will be doing a lot more of this kind of stuff, hopefully with EPIX.