Early in the new documentary Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge, a 22-year-old Jann Wenner is seen sitting at his desk in the cramped San Francisco loft where he started the magazine 50 years ago. The Berkeley dropout is surrounded by a bulging Rolodex, a rotary telephone and a photo of the Beatles, discussing why he started the new publication. "Rock & roll is a particular form [of music] that's changed tremendously, has changed, keeps changing," he tells a local TV reporter. "There was no publication that covered it the way it should be covered, that treated it the way it deserved to be treated."
Wenner had forgotten about that interview until he saw a rough cut of the film recently. "I'd never seen it," he says, before talking about watching his younger self onscreen: "He was a kid on a mission. He was so self-confident, full of himself, and wrong about a lot of things. He could talk anybody into anything." The lost footage is just a fraction of the revelatory material in the new four-hour documentary, directed by Alex Gibney and Blair Foster, which airs on HBO on November 6th and 7th. The film covers how Rolling Stone went from small counterculture rock outlet in San Francisco to glossy New York-based magazine with a circulation in the millions, defining music and politics along the way. "It's a love letter to the magazine," says Wenner. "They did a fantastic job."
Gibney, the man behind definitive docs on James Brown, Scientology and more, met Wenner in 2007, when Gibney interviewed him for Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. "In the course of talking about my relationship with Hunter, he made me cry," says Wenner. "I thought, 'Jesus, this guy knows what he's doing.' "
After deciding to go deeper into Rolling Stone, Gibney recruited Foster, his longtime co-producer, and combed through nearly 1,300 back issues. They interviewed former writers and editors, and scoured the globe for archival videos. Tasked with tackling 50 years of journalism in one movie, Gibney and Foster focused on a few stories Gibney calls "uniquely Rolling Stone." Music segments include Baron Wolman documenting the dark world of rock groupies in 1969, and Ben Fong-Torres' 1971 Ike and Tina Turner cover story, which revealed Ike as a taskmaster who once forced Tina to perform with a temperature of 104. It also highlights Alan Light's 1992 feature on Ice-T, just as "Cop Killer" was becoming a flashpoint of controversy. Ice-T reflects on how he was turned into a political football as the police were coming under fire around the time of the L.A. riots. "Everyone got mad at me and stopped looking at what they were doing," he says. "They used me."
The film pays much attention to the magazine's political reporting, including Wenner and William Greider's 1993 interview with President Clinton after his first year in office. It includes audio of the famous moment when Clinton screamed at his interlocutors over a question that implied he didn't have true convictions. "You get no credit around here for fighting and bleeding," Clinton says. "That's why . . . the right-wingers always win."
Gibney walked away from the project with a deeper appreciation for the magazine's history. "There was always something unique about it," he says. "I also learned that Jann was a pretty good editor. Cameron Crowe tells a great story about Jann handing him Joan Didion's book Slouching Towards Bethlehem. He'd push people to do better and at the same time was trying to nurture them."