I’m still unpacking from a move that added a lot of miles to my odometer, so I’m going to once again pilfer a review from my former online home for our weekly look backwards. When this review was first posted, it prompted my friend Jon to astutely comment, “It’s official. If Scorsese makes a movie about paint drying, he’ll get your ten bucks.” The hyperlink connected to the title of Scorsese’s 1978 concert film originally went somewhere else, but now that I’ve got my own review of that particular piece of work, I’m opting for that digital destination instead.
Martin Scorsese directing a Rolling Stones concert film is an enticing as can be. The Academy-Award winning director has already helmed one of the high-water marks of the genre with 1978’s The Last Waltz and The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the WorldTM has long been one of his chief musical muses. Add to that the fact that he’d be filming the Stones in a rare appearance in a smaller venue that the massive stadiums that usually host them and his assemblage of a dream team of cinematographers with the likes of There Will Be Blood‘s ingenious Oscar winner Robert Elswit and Children of Men‘s Emmanuel Lubezki operating the small battalion of cameras. The elements are all there for a definitive filmed statement on an iconic act. And yet when the new film Shine a Light is finished, for all its accomplishment, it’s hard to identify a satisfying reason for its existence. What does it contribute that hasn’t been adequately covered by any of the other captured concerts that precede it? This is arguably the most well-documented rock band in history, a point to which Scorsese’s generous usage of archival footage attests. Of course there are things that can be added, but does this film do it? Or is it just another concert memento that happens to have an exemplary pedigree.
There’s no dispute that the production is on a noticeably higher level than the standard straight-to-DVD jetsam that seems to allow every last band gets their ninety minutes of video veneration. There’s a enveloping crispness to the images and a simple elegance to the camera placement and movement. It’s not revolutionary, but does exhibit a consuming craftsmanship that has been largely missing in this form since concert films migrated from artistic expression to creating fresh commodities. This is what concert films should always look like, marked by just enough imaginative construction to make it feel like it’s an experience unachievable trough any other means, even siting front and center at the show itself. The Stones themselves are in fine form, making a relatively persuasive argument for the accuracy of that “Greatest Band” moniker. Again, there’s nothing especially transcendent about what they do on the stage–there’s no cause to start slipping “Stones at the Beacon” into arguments dominated by “The Who at Leeds” or “James Brown at the Apollo”–but there’s a causal ferocity to the sound they create, the show they put on. By now, they’ve been doing this for over forty years and a guitar probably feels as natural in Keith Richards’ hands as a hammer does for a lifelong carpenter nearing retirement.
There is something about seeing these sixtysomethings take the stage with a surprisingly vigorous showmanship. All those old film clips accentuate that sensation. Mick Jagger’s slow evolution from a slender pillow of masculine sensuality to a lean dervish of raw sinew hasn’t altered his ability to vibrate across the stage like an unmoored turbine. Keith Richards comes across like a gentle bully boy in the old interviews, but looks like an evil marionette carved from a weather-beaten fence post now. That contrast of youthful past with the seasoned, sustaining pros before us now may give the film a touch more weight, but it also feels kind of like an afterthought, something to help bridge between numbers more than a means to better understand these men soldiering on with their guitars and backbeats. The same can be said for the documentary-styled glimpses at the planning leading up to the performance and the filming of it. There are amusing moments as the hyper-kinetic Scorsese mildly clashes with the casually entitled rock stars, and glimpses of the sheer amount of orchestration that goes into a production like this are tantalizing. Most of it is dominated, instead, by worries about the filmmakers getting a copy of the set list, a conflict that Scorsese has conceded is trumped up in the film. It feels as phony as it is.
The skillfully shot live performance is often enough to carry the film, thankfully. While the band dutifully churns through the warhorses like “Start Me Up,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction,” there’s just the right amount of a sampling the other corners of the catalog that haven’t been worn out by classic rock radio attention. And it’s to their credit that they fearless welcome to the stage guests that can outplay (Buddy Guy) and outsing (Christina Aguilera and, again, Buddy Guy) them. Sometimes it’s about the quality of the circus rather than constantly reminding everyone that you’re the ringmaster.
In the end, Scorsese’s participation may raises hopes for something more significant–a film for the ages, something that will define this legendary band–but a sturdy entertainment is worth celebrating too. It’s only rock and roll, after all. And I liked it.