Martin Scorsese is almost as adept at putting rock 'n' roll on film as he is at blood-drenched tales of murderous mobsters. He served as an assistant director on 1970's Woodstock, the standard-bearer of concert flicks. Eight years later, he chronicled The Band's farewell performance in The Last Waltz. In more recent years, Scorsese has produced first-rate documentaries on Bob Dylan and the blues.
So it is only fitting that arguably America's greatest living filmmaker would turn his attention to arguably the world's greatest surviving rock 'n' roll band, the Rolling Stones. While the resulting picture, Shine a Light, is not the ultimate cinematic statement on the Stones, what it lacks in genuine insight is compensated for with a taut, powerhouse performance by these formidable geezers.
The first smart decision Scorsese makes is opting for a more intimate concert venue. Far from indulging in an arena-rock spectacle, Shine a Light documents a pair of Stones shows in the fall of 2006 at New York's 2,700-seat Beacon Theater. A sea of cameras posted around the Beacon ensures that no moment of musical alchemy goes unchecked. Scorsese's second masterstroke is having ace cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Aviator) assemble a Murderer's Row of Oscar-winning colleagues for camera-handling duties, including Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton), Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The New World), John Toll (Gone Baby Gone, Almost Famous) and Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Neil Young: Heart of Gold).
Even so, things begin a bit shaky. The opening sequence details Scorsese doing some long-distance pleading with the band for an early look at the show's setlist, but the negotiations feel a bit contrived. No matter. It isn't long before Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts take the stage and launch into a blistering version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash."
What follows is a gas, gas, gas (forgive me). The Stones are certainly long in the tooth, but age hasn't dampened their ability to electrify an audience. Jagger, who was 63 at the time, still knows how to sell a song like no one else. His craggy face and skeleton-thin frame give away his age, but he remains a dazzling showman, strutting and swaying as if he's made of rubber. His inimitable stage presence is contrasted by Keith Richards, pasty-faced and unkempt as ever -- and still very much a rock god.
The show is manna for Rolling Stones fans as the group roars through such classics as "Tumbling Dice," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Brown Sugar," "Shattered," "All Down the Line," "Just My Imagination," "Far Away Eyes" and a PG-rated version of "Some Girls." A few special guests turn up to keep things hopping. Jack White, looking very much like a giddy fanboy, joins the band for "Loving Cup," while Christina Aguilera brings some non-geriatric sexiness to a duet with Mick on "Live with Me." Best of all is legendary bluesman Buddy Guy, who lends his ferocious vocal chops and guitar skills to a cover of Muddy Waters' "Champagne and Reefer."
Scorsese spices the proceedings with archival news clips of the Stones as baby-faced rockers in the Sixties being interviewed by Dick Cavett, the BBC and a host of more inane questioners. The blasts of the past are fun - and more would have been even better -- but Shine a Light does not purport to summarize a career that has spanned five decades. The moviemakers realize it's only rock and roll, but they like it. And, sometimes, that's enough.
Presented in widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 television screens, Shine a Light on DVD boasts a near-flawless picture. Lines are crisp, details are clear and impressive. All in all, a stunner.
A concert picture necessitates knockout sound, and Shine a Light does not disappoint. The 5.1 Surround is terrific -- sharp and precise, free of defect and even managing to make interesting use of rear speakers. A 2.0 Stereo track is fine, but pales in comparison.
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
A supplemental featurette is a tasty collection of bits and pieces that evidently didn't make the final cut. Fans will find it worthwhile viewing, particularly its hodgepodge of vintage Stones interview clips.
The disc includes four songs not in the documentary: Undercover of the Night, Paint It Black, A Little T & A and I'm Free. Each track can be played separately or via the "play all" option.
The DVD also has previews of Stop-Loss, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, No Direction Home, American Teen, Defiance, The Duchess and Son of Rambow.
OK, so Shine a Light isn't the definitive movie about the Rolling Stones. But like a wise man sang once, you can't always get what you want. What you do get here is a front row seat for arguably the greatest band in the history of rock 'n' roll. Some nifty extras help get the ya-yas out and elevate this to the level of highly recommended.