There are Shakespearean tragedies with happier endings than Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge, the four-hour, two-night HBO documentary that premiered Monday. Directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney and Emmy winner Blair Foster—and executive-produced by Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, which naturally curtails the self-criticism quite a bit—the film means to celebrate the magazine’s 50-year run as a counterculture bible. But it also underscores the perils of trying to remain a counterculture bible for 50 years: the generational shifts, the philosophical betrayals, the softenings, the inexorable tilt toward gossip and frivolity and nostalgia. It’s the story of a still-often-great institution overwhelmed by its own claims to historical greatness.
Moreover, the project’s last half-hour is devoted to a pair of outright disasters for the magazine. The first—a 2014 article, vividly detailing an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, which ended in a full retraction—was deeply personal and entirely self-inflicted. The second—the election of Donald Trump—was of course societal, but arguably a byproduct of the American celebrity-industrial complex Wenner helped build.
Uplifting stuff! Originally based in San Francisco, Rolling Stone published its first issue on November 9, 1967, with Wenner at the helm and John Lennon on the cover. Stories From the Edge is the second massive history of the publication to emerge in the past few weeks, and definitely the kinder one. In late October, journalist Joe Hagan published the 547-page Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, a dense and dishy and hilariously hypercritical broadside that burrows deep into Wenner’s thorny personal life and excoriates him for his obsession with money, fame, and social climbing. (Wenner cooperated with Hagan for the book, but disavowed the finished product, declaring it “deeply flawed and tawdry, rather than substantial.”)
Stories From the Edge aims for substance, and Monday night’s opening two-hour installment was a fairly standard baby boomer nostalgia trip: the reverent talking heads, the pocket ’60s history, the vintage performance footage of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones and the like. The overarching idea here is to single out Rolling Stone’s biggest and best stories. Ben Fong-Torres’s intimate 1971 portrait of Ike and Tina Turner. Howard Kohn and David Weir’s explosive 1975 investigative report on the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Alan Light’s prescient 1992 summit with Ice-T at the height of the “Cop Killer” controversy. President Bill Clinton chewing out political reporter William Greider in a chippy 1993 interview. A somber and harsh 2008 Vanessa Grigoriadis report on the “American Tragedy” of Britney Spears at her lowest.
These lengthy segments are bolstered by extended interviews with the authors (Grigoriadis concedes she might’ve been too harsh on Britney) and, if possible, clips from the actual interview tapes, which are great. Less great are excerpts from the pieces themselves read in voice-over by none other than Jeff Daniels, which gives the whole thing a discomfiting The Newsroom–style pompousness. (Excerpts from deified gonzo-journalism icon Hunter S. Thompson’s pieces are read by Johnny Depp, in a long-running bit of pantomime and over-worship that has grown deeply tiresome.)
Not all of the stories singled out feel essential: Both a 1969 dispatch on rock ’n’ roll groupies and a 1983 Hunter S. Thompson rumination on the Roxanne Pulitzer divorce feel like celebrity-worshipping prurience for prurience’s sake. But this piece-by-piece approach is odder and livelier than a straight history lesson, and Monday’s installment ends with arguably the magazine’s finest moment in covering one of the counterculture’s darkest hours: the 1980 murder of John Lennon. That issue’s Annie Leibovitz cover photo of a naked Lennon and a clothed Yoko Ono—taken hours before Lennon’s death—is perhaps the most striking rock-star portrait ever taken, and on camera now, Wenner and Leibovitz both rightfully treat it as a holy artifact that justifies much of the documentary’s—and the magazine’s—nostalgic pompousness.
The two-hour second half, airing Tuesday night, is where the sharpest and queasiest action is. It begins with a striking sequence that starts with 2016 footage of Chance the Rapper singing “Same Drugs”—“When did you change? / Wendy you’ve aged / I thought you’d never grow up”—as Wenner leads a small Rolling Stone staff meeting and pushes for some Chance coverage via some awfully awkward enthusiasm. (“Chance the Rapper. He’s young, he’s newsy, he’s got hits. I’m interested.”)
But the real subject is the magazine’s slow evolution into The Establishment. “If you start out as the counterculture, you can’t stay there,” former Rolling Stone writer and MTV News icon Kurt Loder says, over footage of a scraggly-looking Rolling Stones gracing the cover in 2013. “The counterculture doesn’t even stay there. You either grow or you die.” Wenner’s way of addressing this conundrum, naturally, is to quote Bob Dylan: “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Which is to say that Part 2 starts out by exploring the magazine’s fitful, internally contentious moves to broaden its focus, musically and otherwise, which involved covering everyone from the Clash to ’NSync to disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Another high point for the magazine—or at least a high-profile scalp—was Michael Hastings’s cutting 2010 profile of Army General Stanley McChrystal, which prompted the resignation of what was then the top American commander of the war in Afghanistan.
By the late ’70s, Rolling Stone had moved offices to New York City; frustratingly, Hagan’s book greatly minimizes any analysis of the magazine’s output from then on, focusing instead on Wenner’s Hamptons escapades and private jets. Stories From the Edge has Wenner’s full cooperation, and its criticism can thus cut only so deep, but this emphasis on substance over tawdriness in the later years is welcome all the same. Nonetheless, the central tension of this documentary is when, and how, it will cover Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s 2014 piece “A Rape on Campus,” which quickly imploded, resulting in several multimillion-dollar lawsuits and a bruising Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism postmortem the magazine published in full, under the subtitle “an anatomy of a journalistic failure.”
Stories From the Edge devotes a long, painful segment to this debacle, with a startling opening flourish: a writer named Marianne Partridge recalling her experience pitching a story on rape in a 1974 Rolling Stone edit meeting, where she was greeted with tittering laughter and worse. “Someone at that table said, ‘Why don’t you just lean back and enjoy it, then it wouldn’t be a rape,’” she recalls, adding that, “Jann wasn’t laughing. He took me seriously.”
From there we jump forward to a full accounting of “A Rape on Campus,” from its genesis—Erdely, who per an onscreen graphic declined the documentary’s interview requests, is described as having previously been a magazine “MVP”—to its swift unraveling, when Wenner recalls Erdely calling him in tears to admit she no longer trusted her source. Rolling Stone’s public reputation took a mortal blow, from Fox News talking heads dismissing it as “fake news,” to anti-rape activists lamenting that this disaster made it that much harder to convince the public to take rape survivors at their word.
All of this is incredibly hard to watch, and undeniably the most compelling part of Stories From the Edge overall, the moment when a somewhat pious self-celebration tips over into outright tragedy. “I mean, we’ve been writing these kinds of stories for a long, long time,” a chastened Wenner tells the camera. “Maybe we were too cocky, or sloppy, or just dumb fuckin’ luck. Dumb fucking bad luck.”
Perhaps Wenner’s still not quite chastened enough. From there the documentary concludes with another kind of trauma, detailing the magazine’s coverage of Trump’s candidacy and election, a shocking repudiation of the progressive values Rolling Stone has historically broadcast to the world at its finest, or at least its proudest. Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” provides some of the soundtrack to this grim coda, putting us back on familiar territory that doesn’t provide quite as much shelter as it used to. Stories From the Edge is a magazine’s reasonably tempered love letter to itself, but only until unspinnable reality sharply intrudes. It’s not the hagiographic gilding of history you might fear, but even for longtime skeptics and critics, the magazine’s willingness to concede its defeats won’t feel like much of a victory.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.