My Life as a Rolling Stone, review: come on BBC, we’ve heard this all before

My Life as a Rolling Stone: Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood - Mark Seliger
My Life as a Rolling Stone: Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood - Mark Seliger

“What most documentaries do is repeat the same thing over and over,” states Mick Jagger at the start of the BBC’s My Life as a Rolling Stone. He says that as if it’s a bad thing – but the makers of this four-part series celebrating the Stones’ 60th anniversary appear to have taken it on as a suggestion.

No Stones cliché is left unturned as directors Oliver Murray and Clare Tavernor trace the history of rock’s original bad boys from the early British blues scene to their present day status as an age-defying juggernaut. The big coup has been to secure lengthy individual interviews with the three surviving members (the instalment focusing on late drummer Charlie Watts leans heavily on the archives) – along with laudatory contributions from Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, Jon Bon Jovi and others.

But that’s as innovative as it gets in a documentary so generic it could have gone out on BBC4’s Friday Night Music without anyone batting an eye-lid.

There is some attempt at encouraging the band to dig deeper. It is suggested (very politely) to Jagger that he might be a control freak. Richards is asked about his flirtations with heroin. Having visited these topics a thousand times already, the Stones bat the questions back effortlessly.

“I’m not a control freak. Someone has to be in control of an enterprise like this,” shrugs Jagger. “It’s a rough old world, sometimes you need something to blank it out,” says Richards, with a deflective chuckle.

My Life as a Rolling Stone will delight Stones die-hards, who never tire of hearing Richards talk about his love of the blues. Or of watching old footage of Jagger being marched away by police after his 1967 drugs arrest at Richards’ Redlands mansion (Jagger worried what his mum would think). 

One or two new nuggets are also uncovered. Jagger, the focus of part one, takes issue with the idea that he is the band's pop wizard and Richards the haggard bluesman. It was Richards, he says, who noticed what the Beatles were doing and resolved to follow them to the top of the charts. And it was the guitarist who was behind some of the Stones' catchiest moments. “Keith likes to write pop songs: lots and lots of pop songs,” says Jagger. “Ruby Tuesday, Angie.. these emanate from Keith originally.” 

These are charming insights and there is always a vicarious thrill in hearing old rockers look back on their years of excess, as Ronnie Wood does in his episode. “Everyone was taking far too many drugs then,” he recalls. “The whole band should have gotten into f**king rehab for a year, all of them, including me. But you know, you take the rough with the smooth.”

Ronnie Wood looks back on years of excess - Mercury Studios
Ronnie Wood looks back on years of excess - Mercury Studios

But the documentary could have looked forward as well as back. The Stones’ BST Hyde Park gig and Paul McCartney’s at least as miraculous Glastonbury headline set at the age of 80 (both only last Saturday) make it clear that this generation of golden rockers have a few encores left in them yet. And, as we all bask in the feelgood factor from both events, a new Rolling Stones documentary would have been a fantastic opportunity to herald the group as a living, breathing entity.

My Life as a Rolling Stone is thorough and skilfully assembled – with enthusiastic narration by Sienna Miller. Yet, while adding to the great bonfire of Rolling Stones hagiographies, it ultimately does little to deepen our understanding of a band who remade rock’n’roll in their own image.

My Life as a Rolling Stone begins on July 2 on BBC Two