Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge is a two-part documentary on the history of Rolling Stone magazine, which was first published in 1967. The documentary is co-directed by Alex Gibney, who is probably the great documentarian of our time. He takes a similar approach to his previous work on Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, using the history of the magazine to chronicle the last 50 years of American history, specifically its music and politics.
The story is mostly told through the eyes of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, which does undeniably make it rose-tinted at times. He was basically this hippy kid who founded the magazine along with his then-girlfriend (later wife) and his mentor Ralph J. Gleason, who was one of the few jazz critics at the time who remotely understood and actually liked rock n’ roll. When they started Rolling Stone, to quote Wenner, it was “sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper… Rolling Stone is not just about music, but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces.” They have held to that mission statement from the very first issue, even though their music coverage has left a lot to be desired for decades now.
The documentary basically goes through the major stories they covered, from the busting the lid off the “groupie” phenomenon to the more recent “A Rape On Campus” piece, which seriously discredited their journalistic integrity. It never goes into some of the shadier side of their operations, including the way they (mis)treated their staff, both male and female, or record companies paying for favourable coverage for their acts. Wenner himself was accused of sexual assault by a former male employee (he would leave his wife for a man in 1995), but given that it’s partially a Rolling Stone production, these omissions are to be expected. Simultaneous with the documentary’s release, a big biography on Wenner came out. Wenner had worked with the writer on it for years but publicly slammed the book when it was published, calling it “deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”
However, it’s possible to overlook these flaws and instead see it was a chronicle of the last half-century of American history, and from that perspective it’s a stunning piece of work. As you would expect, Gibney expertly uses archival footage alongside newly filmed interviews with some of the journalists and a few of the artists that the magazine covered. It probably gets most critical about Rolling Stone when it covered the punk era, which the old guard at the magazine either didn’t understand or completely dismissed—but luckily, some writers got it, like Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, even if they caught on a year later than most British music writers. It also goes into how the magazine became this almost yuppie establishment publication in the ’80s instead of touting its roots in the radical counterculture of the ’60s. During this period they often just covered the old guard, like Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones, instead of new and upcoming artists. The magazine did get some young writers who got hip-hop for instance, like Alan Light, which for some of the old writers was as baffling as punk had been.
Given the magazine’s own history, all the most interesting parts of the documentary involve their coverage of current affairs stories. Their coverage of the Patty Hearst kidnapping was a game-changer for the magazine, gaining it journalism awards and making the establishment media realise that they had completely dropped the ball in their coverage. Of course, perhaps their most famous (and infamous) Rolling Stone journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, appears throughout in archival footage, from his coverage of 1972 presidential election to his strained relationship with Wenner. One particular highlight of Hunter is him walking out on Bill Clinton during a roundtable interview, because he was utterly disgusted by Clinton being a Conservative Democrat, while all his fellow baby boomers are in awe of this man.
Overall, despite some obvious problems with objectivity given Wenner and Rolling Stone‘s financial support for the documentary, it’s the latest in Gibney’s extraordinary and diverse body of work. The documentary lifts the lid on this little counterculture paper from San Francisco that eventually became the establishment, and like any good film or documentary about the press, it puts you right into the newsroom—you can really smell those machine presses. They have still been doing great journalism in recent years, especially the work of Michael Hastings, who sadly died in 2013 under extremely suspicious circumstances.
The documentary is spread over two discs, each with one two-hour segment. The DVDs include around 20 minutes of extra interviews with various talking heads from the documentary.