The joke behind Martin Scorsese's American Express commercial is that he shot his nephew's birthday party. Because, you know, what is America's greatest living director doing shooting a child's party? I admit to initially having the same reaction to hearing he was directing a Rolling Stones concert film, not just because there have been a ton of Stones concert films, but also because at this point most Stones releases of any kind are more like commercial chum to fuel their tours rather than works of art.
Yet, it also makes a certain kind of sense that these giants would team up. Scorsese made one of the seminal entries in the concert genre in 1978 when he shot the Band for The Last Waltz, and Mick Jagger and Co. saw the creative possibilities of film early in their career, hiring Jean-Luc Godard to chronicle their writing process in Sympathy for the Devil and changing the face of rock documentaries with the Maysles Bros.' Gimme Shelter. Thus, if anyone is going to give this Mount Rushmore of rock history a facelift, it's Scorsese, and if anyone is going to allow the director the room to get creative, it's the Stones.
Shine a Light was shot in 2006 at the Beacon Theatre in New York when the Stones performed a benefit for Bill Clinton's charity foundation. A far cry from the arenas the group normally plays, this intimate theatre gives Scorsese a fantastic setting to memorialize the aging rock band doing what they love. Filling the hall with lights and cameras, Scorsese captures their set with a stunning, often unforgiving clarity. Particularly blown up to gargantuan size on the IMAX screen, you're going to see every wrinkle on Mick Jagger and Keith Richard's craggy faces. You're also going to see all the sweat and spit that goes into a performance, cranked up to maximum levels.
I don't think I've ever seen a better looking concert film than Shine a Light. It's gorgeous to look at. The image and the colors are warm, and the cameras keep moving, tracking the rhythm and momentum of the music. The sound is also pristine, with Scorsese and the audio team only fiddling with the mix in order to provide a surround-sound atmosphere. If Keith is having a solo, and the cameras are on him, then his guitar will rise in volume, letting us hear exactly what he is doing. For all the jokes about how the Rolling Stones are senior citizens, one thing Shine a Light will prove is what great musicians the core trio of guitarists Richards and Ronnie Wood and drummer Charlie Watts are. These dudes can play, and they pick a solid team of players to back them up.
Rather than trot out the hits in the same old way, the arrangements are often loose. Keith, who has always been more of a player who chases feeling than he does technical proficiency, is particularly free with his guitar lines. Scorsese tries to match the personalities that come through in the playing with the backstage personalities, dropping in snippets of old interviews from the band's long history between numbers as commentary and tribute. You will be amazed by how many different times over the decades the guys were asked "How long do you think you'll keep this up?"
Unfortunately, I don't think Mick Jagger has the chops any longer to be as good of a frontman as his band deserves. The rockier the number--"Jumping Jack Flash," "Start Me Up," "Satisfaction"--the worse he sounds. Particularly on the first couple of songs, neither his voice nor his limbs have been warmed up enough, and he looks and sounds stiff and short of breath. For the celebratory "Sympathy for the Devil" encore, someone needed to cut his microphone every time he whipped out a pathetic "doot doot." Thankfully, most of the middle set is made of slower, bluesier numbers, allowing for his pipes to pump out a little more honey. Likewise, his preening stops appearing to be perfunctory and starts to look spontaneous. Even so, when blues performer Buddy Guy joins the band for a runthrough of Muddy Waters' "Champagne and Reefer," the moment he opens his mouth, it's like an explosion, pointing out how weak Mick sounds by comparison. The same thing happens when Christina Aguilera comes onstage for "Live With Me." Mick just can't keep up.
The set is not particularly designed for casual fans, myself among them. I knew less than half the songs. The blues appear to be where the band is most comfortable these days, and it works for them. More contrived shots at Americana, like the country-and-western "Faraway Eyes," aren't as convincing, and the one truly bum moment is the ostentatious airing of "As Tears Go By." The overstuffed arrangement and Mick's flat singing rob it of its gentle beauty.
The songs in Shine a Light pale next to the candid moments, anyway. When Scorsese captures Charlie Watts catching his breath after a number or Keith laughing at himself for forgetting the lyrics, this is where the movie really comes alive, suddenly becoming a movie about some guys who make music and not just another concert film. If there is one complaint I have, actually, it's that Shine a Light is too much of a concert film. The opening of the picture shows behind-the-scenes preparations, planning the stage, setting up, the meet-and-greets. Scorsese is a character in this drama, as charming and affable as ever, and so is the band. Though the explosion from a smaller, boxed-off picture to the larger, full-IMAX concert footage is effective, I wish the whole movie had kept us abreast of what was happening behind the scenes. Who is rushing around backstage, how is Marty directing the cameras, what is happening at the light and soundboards. The first five minutes are the best part of Shine a Light, and when Scorsese shows up again to show us out the door, it reminds us of how much we missed him.
Had Scorsese kept the curtains peeled back, Shine a Light could have been a much more special picture. Though the beauty of his camerawork comes alive on the giant IMAX screens, after seeing the breathtaking technology on display in the same theatre just a few months ago in U2 3D, it's hard to look at a regular concert film the same. I still recommend Shine a Light, no question, but I wish it had blazed a bigger trail.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.