THE DOCUMENTARY “Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge”
WHEN | WHERE Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and Emmy-winning director Blair Foster (“George Harrison: Living in the Material World”) team up to deliver a two-part documentary about the past 50 years of pop culture as seen through the lens of Rolling Stone magazine. Part 1 tackles the years from Jann Wenner’s creation of the magazine, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, through the death of John Lennon, while Part 2 goes from the birth of punk until today. The documentary has Jeff Daniels read parts of stories from the magazine to narrate events ranging from the breakthrough of Bruce Springsteen to the election of Donald Trump, with interviews and archival footage of the magazine’s reporters providing analysis.
MY SAY In its heyday, Rolling Stone was youth culture’s most important magazine because it was one of the only outlets to take it seriously, one of the only places that understood how much sway musicians could have, not just on their audiences, but on society as a whole.
The first half of the documentary captures that well, as it covers the magazine’s creation as just another one of the “Stories From the Edge.” Some of the stories are stunning, including writer Ben Fong-Torres’ encounters with Ike and Tina Turner and the depth of the relationship between the magazine and John Lennon and Yoko Ono, especially poignant in its coverage after his murder.
The second half is actually more enlightening, though, as Gibney and Foster do a remarkable job of explaining the challenges that Rolling Stone faces, while still celebrating its significance.
“The gossip crept in,” complains the late Hunter S. Thompson, the king of the gonzo journalism style that informed so much of the magazine’s non-music coverage. “Bon Jovi and whatever color he paints his fingernails is more important than the fact that Ronald Reagan is president.”
Much to Thompson’s chagrin, Rolling Stone went from championing the counterculture to protecting its view of the mainstream. The documentary includes carping from some reporters who complain about how the magazine was slow to recognize the power of punk and hip-hop. Also to everyone’s credit, there is a lengthy discussion of the magazine’s missteps in its now-discredited story about a rape on the University of Virginia campus.
It’s a sign of how the magazine’s surroundings may have changed faster than it has. The magazine’s future is even more uncertain now that Wenner plans to sell his 51 percent share.
Gibney and Foster offer a telling moment about that to open the documentary’s second half. Chance the Rapper leads fans in a sing-along of “Same Drugs,” while Wenner declares he is interested in covering him. Then, they show a meeting where eight men, all white, sit in the magazine’s mostly empty conference room talking about stories for the magazine’s future.
BOTTOM LINE An in-depth look at the fascinating, not always pretty, 50-year history of Rolling Stone and the changing popular culture that it covers.