Arts Listings

MOVING PICTURES: Scorsese, Stones Team Up for ‘Shine a Light’

By Justin DeFreitas
Tuesday April 08, 2008
The Rolling Stones — Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts — take a bow on the stage of New York’s Beacon Theater at the end of Martin Scorcese’s concert film Shine a Light.
The Rolling Stones — Mick Jagger, Ron Wood, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts — take a bow on the stage of New York’s Beacon Theater at the end of Martin Scorcese’s concert film Shine a Light.

You may ask, Why another Rolling Stones concert film? Aren’t they a tad past their prime? And haven’t these guys had enough camera time over the past 45 years?  

The answer is simple: Not only is it unprecedented for a rock ’n’ roll band to stay together this long, to keep recording and performing well into their 60s, but the Stones are undoubtedly a better live band today than they’ve ever been.  

Martin Scorsese’s new concert film, Shine a Light, showing at Shattuck Cinemas and in an IMAX version at San Francisco’s Metreon, captures the latter-day Stones in its current incarnation as the hardest-working band in show business.  

The dynamics of the band’s performances have changed over the years, and at nearly every significant stage of their development they’ve had a great director drop in to document the proceedings. In the early 1960s they were a British white-boy blues band, with much of their repertoire drawn from the songbooks of their Chicago blues idols: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy. By the late ’60s, the band was something quite different, having carved out its own identity with a unique sound that blended their influences into an idiosyncratic new brand of rock. The band’s image had grown darker, and their live shows began to take on a somewhat menacing air—the Stones seemed genuinely dangerous. The era reached its conclusion with the infamous free concert at Altamont in which a man was murdered by Hell’s Angels right in front of the stage, a harrowing moment caught on film in the first of the great films about the Stones, Gimme Shelter.  

By the early ’70s the aura of danger had faded a bit, and the Stones took on an air of camp rock ’n’ roll decadence, dabbling in reggae and disco, glitter and makeup, and staging ever more outrageous live performances. Once again, they were put on the big screen in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones. In the 1980s, the Stones set out on rock’s first stadium tour, proving that even while pushing 40, they were still the biggest band in the world, and legendary director Hal Ashby caught it all on film in Let’s Spend the Night Together. Since that time, as the band morphed into a smoothly run global enterprise, they’ve been competently filmed by a variety of lesser-known directors for the band’s various DVD releases. 

But here they get another great director, one able to go beyond the mechanics and craft of a concert film to strive for something more, to attempt to capture the essence of a live performance and transform it into something distinctly cinematic.  

Critics have complained that Shine a Light isn’t a documentary, that it neither seeks nor provides much insight into the inner workings of the band and the secret to its longevity. These critics are missing the point. There is no shortage of documentaries about the band’s storied career. Perhaps it is true that the definitive Stones documentary has yet to be made, and perhaps Scorsese, coming off well-received films about Bob Dylan and blues, is just the man to do it. But this is not that film. Here Scorsese is simply interested in the performance itself. The Stones have never been particularly introspective, never sentimental, never prone to dwelling on the past. Thus it is entirely fitting that Shine a Light should simply focus on the moment. 

A good concert film first requires a good concert, but more than that it requires an understanding of what makes that concert good. Most of the ingredients are here: a great band at the peak of its form; a great venue, New York’s Beacon Theater, intimate and packed to the rafters; and a great director to capture it all. What is missing from Shine a Light is a true Stones crowd. The occasion was a benefit concert for Global Warming Awareness, with Bill and Hillary Clinton and their vast entourage taking up the center of one balcony. But the real problem is the floor crowd, which Scorsese decided to fill with a bevy of photogenic 20-something women—hardly the Stones’ prime demographic these days. As a result, much of the first few rows are filled with young fillies more focused on being photographed than on the band and the music. Their conspicuous placement and posturing only detracts from the film. 

Still, you’ve never seen such a beautifully photographed concert. Scorsese matches the movement of his cameras to the pace of the band, following guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood around the stage, registering the crack of Charlie Watts’ tightly controlled drumming, and relentlessly pursuing singer Mick Jagger as Jagger relentlessly pursues the audience. Scorsese built a team of top-notch cinematographers to man the 17 cameras that relentlessly traverse the theater to keep pace with the whirling dervish that is Jagger. Low-angle shots transform the lights and ceilings into a dizzying pattern that swirls above the heads of the band as they roam the stage and dart in and out along the catwalk. Close-ups of the guitarists give a glimpse of the band’s unique dual-guitar attack, in which both trade off playing lead and rhythm. And plenty of screen time is given to the cast of backing musicians, most of whom have been touring with the Rolling Stones for at least 20 years, and, in the case of saxophonist Bobby Keyes, for nearly 40. 

And Scorsese never loses sight of the crowd, keeping them dappled in warm light and misty shadow, as much a part of the tableau as the gilded theater and set design.  

Though the set list begins and ends with stalwart Stones classics, 12 of the concert’s 18 songs are lesser-known or at least less-often-performed tracks. After the behind-the-scenes prologue, which, in the IMAX version, is projected at standard movie size, the frame immediately expands to full IMAX size at the first notes of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and the frenetic pace, rapid editing and flashing lights make the experience a bit overwhelming. But things settle down a bit with “Shattered,” as the Stones settle into gear and highlight album tracks and overlooked gems, with a special emphasis on 1978’s Some Girls album. And in between, Scorsese peppers the film with brief archival clips from interviews with the Stones through the decades, most of them adding a light comedic touch to the proceedings. There is just one misstep, as Scorsese interrupts Richards’ rendition of the rarely performed “Connection” with clips of interviews with the guitarist. 

Fittingly, the one moment where Scorsese’s restless camera comes to a stop, if only for a few seconds, is for a prolonged close-up of guest star Buddy Guy. Fitting because Guy, as one of the still-living icons of the Chicago blues sound of the 1950s, is at the very center of what the Stones are all about. He joins them for a cover of “Champagne and Reefer,” a song by the great Muddy Waters, the man who more than anyone else inspired the Stones’ music and identity. They even took their name from a Waters song. Sure, most of their signature riffs are based on the guitar work of Chuck Berry, and there were myriad other influences along the way. But it was Waters, along with the rest of the electrified, urban, plugged-in Chicago blues masters, that led the way for a quintet of English white boys in the early 1960s. 

The Stones have always been loyal to those roots and paid homage to them, sharing the stage with their idols and helping to bring greater fame to those elder gentlemen, even when it means getting blown off the stage by them. For all of Jagger’s manic energy and cheeky posturing, for all Keith Richards’ swaggering attitude, it is Buddy Guy who summons the essence of the hard, driven sound that inspired them, with his deft, soulful guitar work and powerful, resonant voice. As Guy solos, standing firmly at center stage, the band circles him, surrounding the man like worshippers paying tribute to the sound and spirit which launched them on their five-decade journey.