Rolling Stone is the most influential rock magazine of all time. For people born after 1980, it’s difficult to capture just how and why a print magazine had the power to shape music, culture and politics, but Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney takes a strong crack at it with his new documentary.
Emmy-winning director Blair Foster is also along for the ride, making Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge a compelling deep-dive into the magazine’s storied history. The two-part documentary covers 50 years of rock history through Rolling Stone’s unique vantage point. The first part starts with Jann Wenner’s creation of the magazine, its ascent as an influencer, and ends with the death of John Lennon. Part 2 takes us from the beginning of the punk movement through the modern era. Jeff Daniels narrates the film, which captures significant events in both music and politics.
Wenner’s genius was in taking music and youth culture seriously. Prior to Rolling Stone, the music of the era was only chronicled through the lens of a puzzled middle-aged population. Wenner instinctively knew how important music was in shaping the culture, particularly during the 1960s and the entire Vietnam Era. This is depicted in part one, showing some of the outstanding reporting by Rolling Stone’s reporters, and how they covered major figures like John Lennon and Yoko Ono, their controversies, and in Lennon’s case, how they covered his death.
Rolling Stone gave voice to a number of game-changing new reporters like Hunter Thompson, who did important work which permanently changed journalism, for good or for ill.
Although this part is well-crafted, these stories have been told before in a variety of forums. Gibney and Foster’s second part might be even more engaging, as it covers developments in music, publishing and culture which have changed the role of Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone was once on the vanguard of the counterculture, but it was less sure of its role as the counterculture faded and a new era in politics dominated during the Reagan years.
To its credit, the documentary includes some reporters who discuss why Wenner and the magazine were derelict in recognizing the importance of rap, punk and hip-hop: all movements which were closer to the countercultural critique of the 1960’s than the pop music which dominated the 1980’s and 1990’s. One scene in particular shows the awkwardness that ensued. As Chance the Rapper leads fans in a sing-along of his song “Same Drugs,” Wenner says he can’t wait to cover him. Yet later, at an editorial meeting, eight white men un-ironically discuss story ideas for the future of music.
Rolling Stone is still attempting to do groundbreaking journalism. The documentary does not shy away from the most well-chronicled attempt at journalism: its profile of an alleged gang-rape incident at University of Virginia which turned out to be fabricated.
This warts-and-all look at Rolling Stone’s past leaves with a question mark about the future of the magazine. Wenner and his son are seeking to sell their controlling interest, and among the potential buyers is a 29-year old minority shareholder from Singapore. That change could be the biggest one the magazine has ever undertaken, killing Rolling Stone completely or ensuring its future survival.