Rolling Stone rocks music, culture in HBO documentary

Posted October 31, 2017 12:56 p.m. EDT

— Rolling Stone has earned its place in history as a publication at the center of music, pop culture and politics. Yet despite fascinating moments, "Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge" -- a four-hour documentary, produced in conjunction with the magazine -- feels a bit too much like a licensed product to be fully and consistently compelling.

Like "The Defiant Ones," another music-themed, multi-part HBO documentary about Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, directors Alex Gibney and Blair Foster use Jann Wenner's creation as a filter through which to examine a diverse array of musical and cultural forces. Those range from the rise of rock 'n roll and punk to Hunter S. Thompson's legendary fear and loathing on the trail during the Nixon campaign.

Split into two parts, the first half is easily the strongest, with a fresh-faced Wenner describing his new venture as "sort of a magazine, sort of a newspaper," one that became the voice of a youth culture experiencing its own awakening along with the music.

Presented episodically through pieces that ran in the magazine, "Stories From the Edge" feels somewhat inevitably uneven. The directors chronicle everything from the close relationship with John Lennon -- and Annie Leibovitz photo taken right before his death -- to the discovery of Bruce Springsteen, from Cameron Crowe famously writing for Rolling Stone as a teenager to the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst and the insane access the magazine's reporters gained to those involved.

Other highlights include televangelist Jimmy Swaggart railing against rock magazines that he dubbed "pornography," followed by his very public exposure of hypocrisy; and Rolling Stone becoming "the home of the new journalism" by championing writers like Tom Wolfe and Thompson, who described his brand of "gonzo journalism" as involving "total subjectivity" and "participation."

The filmmakers incorporate several classy touches, like having actor Jeff Daniels read prose from the magazine, and Johnny Depp -- who starred in the movie "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" -- provide Thompson's voice. Nor can anyone accuse the project of being a whitewash, inasmuch as it devotes considerable time to Rolling Stone's "A Rape on Campus," the retracted story about a fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia, with Wenner conceding that the editorial process got "sloppy."

"Stories From the Edge" gets to the heart of Rolling Stone's unique relationship with its core readers, who repeatedly see each new wrinkle it dares to embrace -- from rap to boy bands -- as proof that the publication has abandoned them. As someone notes wryly, "Every generation of readers thinks that the magazine has sold out."

The second part also features Rolling Stone's coverage of the 2016 election, which, amid efforts to understand the "Trump voter," draws an unavoidable spiritual link back to Thompson's ruminations about Nixon in 1972.

Still, "Rolling Stone" is light in key areas, from biographical material about Wenner (who has feuded with the author of an upcoming book about him) to the business and technological forces that have assailed the magazine in particular and publishing in general.

Filled with vintage footage and previously unheard audio from interviews, "Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge" still has plenty to recommend it, especially for music fans of a certain age. But even making charitable allowances for the heady task of distilling a half-century into four hours, the film winds up being defined almost as much by what's omitted as what it includes.

"Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge" premieres Nov. 6 and 7 at 9 p.m. on HBO.