Release Date: April 4
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cinematographer: Robert Richardson
Starring: Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood
Studio/Run Time: Paramount Vantage, 120 mins.
Martin Scorsese gets his ya-ya’s out
To paraphrase what the late Douglas Adams once wrote about highway bypasses, you’ve got to make Rolling Stones documentaries. Everyone knows that. And anybody wanting to try will be stepping to weighty company: the Maysles brothers’ apocalyptic Altamont chronicle Gimme Shelter (1970), where a man is beaten to death with a pool cue; Jean-Luc Godard’s accidental prequel Sympathy For the Devil/One Plus One (1968), filled with lush in-studio shots of the Stones creating the film’s title song; Robert Frank’s debauched and unreleasable Cocksucker Blues (1972), where the band jams a soundtrack to a roadie/groupie mini-orgy on its private jet. And let no fan of cinema forget Julien Temple & co.’s IMAX spectacular At the Max (1991), notable for being really, really big.
Enter Martin Scorsese, who is onscreen from the first moments of Shine a Light, suited and gesticulating in urgent, vérité black-and-white. While we get snippets of the Stones offstage in various international locales, city names flashing importantly, Scorsese plays the part of monomaniacal director. It’s a hopefully intentional caricature. As he winds up to the October 2006 show, the Stones feel almost like incidental characters.
“That’s normal movie stuff, is it?” drummer Charlie Watts offers dryly at the banks of lights being set up in Manhattan’s Beacon Theater. In a scene that recalls A Hard Day’s Night, the band goes through a series of meet-and-greets with Bill and Hillary Clinton. Grizzled Ronnie Wood meets matronly Dorothy Rodham. Hilarity briefly ensues.
“Hello Mr. Clinton, I’m Bushed,” Keith Richards cracks to Watts during a break in the endless photo op, atavistic schoolboy insolence kicking in. But sometimes benefits for ex-presidents (cheap seats: literally $60,000) require a little hand-shaking, and the Stones are happy to play the game—especially because it ensures them the ability to remake the Beacon’s stage, adding catwalks and stocking the well-spaced front row with attractive people.
The band hits with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and Scorsese’s sympathies are obvious. The Stones get total coverage—which is to say that there are cameras on Jagger, Richards, Wood and Watts. If they happen to pick up bassist Daryl Jones, the backing vocalists, horn section (led by longtime saxophonist Bobby Keys, once credited as “TV Repairman” with Richards in Cocksucker Blues for their actions on a hotel balcony) or acoustic stunt guitarist Blondie Chaplin, so be it. Indeed, when Richards has a moment with Keys during “Live With Me,” the cameras are all trained on Jagger, grinding with special guest Christina Aguilera. Where David Byrne and Jonathan Demme cloaked roadies in black in reference to Japanese Noh theater for Stop Making Sense, Scorsese simply edits them out.
Pulling from what Jagger calls their “medium-known” songs, the Stones rely more on charisma than musicianship to sell a set without many greatest hits. Musically, the songs occasionally stretch Jagger’s credibility, his scatting during “Shattered” helplessly recalling Jack Black, his balladeering diminished to overarticulation during “As Tears Go By.” Jack White emerges for a joyful “Loving Cup,” growling along with Jagger.
They’re still Stones songs, though, and carry a certain weight for that alone. When the over-40-year-old band finally gets to the hits and Jagger prances familiarly in from the theater’s rear during the introduction to “Sympathy For the Devil,” the continuum becomes obvious: the London dandies performing this song for Godard’s camera, in front of pool-cue-wielding Hell’s Angels on a Northern California motor speedway and, now, at a party attended by international heads of state.
Besides the occasional and quite welcome newsreel flashback, Shine a Light has no architecture or ambition besides being a late-period concert film. Only after the music begins does one realize how entertaining Scorsese’s presence was, and how—besides himself—he has nothing at all to offer his well-filmed subjects. He barely even tries.
Just as the Stones use their own magnetism as a conceit to cloak musical inadequacies, Scorsese uses the notion of the silver screen to cloak his. Shine a Light is worth seeing in a movie theater, because it’s cool to see the Stones in a movie theater. After that, it’ll just feel like another shark-jumping concert DVD. Hopefully there’ll be some cool bonus features.