Shine a LightReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/04/08 00:00:00
When you consider that the Rolling Stones have always maintained a keen interest in the possibilities of film throughout their 40+ year reign as the world’s premier rock band–they have collaborated with such renowned filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard (“One Plus One,” a.k.a. “Sympathy for the Devil”), Albert Maysles (“Gimme Shelter”) and Hal Ashby (“Let’s Spend The Night Together”) and embraced cinematic motifs ranging from rough cinema verite (in the scandalous and rarely-screened/widely bootlegged backstage documentary “Cocksucker Blues”) to the ability of the IMAX system to fully replicate the sights and sounds of a contemporary rock concert (the awe-inspiring “At the Max”)–and that Martin Scorsese has, over the course of his own 40-odd years as a filmmaker, demonstrated a keen facility for discovering the cinematic potential of rock music as a subject for his cameras (as he did in the groundbreaking documentaries “The Last Waltz” and “No Direction Home”) or as a manner of adding an extra layer of narrative depth by wedding just the right song selection to a particular scene (there are too many prime examples to mention, though my favorite may be the terrifying and heartbreaking use of Jackson Brown’s “Late From the Sky” in “Taxi Driver”), the idea of the two of them teaming up to make a concert movie seems like such an obvious artistic match that you may wonder why it took them until now to finally join forces. Imagine what might have resulted if the young and energetic Scorsese at the beginning of his career had been there to capture the band during the late 60's-early 70's peak that culminated with the massive tour designed to support the 1972 masterpiece “Exile on Main Street” (which was commemorated in both “Cocksucker Blues” and “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones,” the straightforward and fairly pedestrian concert film that was hastily slapped together when the band had “CB” pulled from the marketplace) or if the post-“Taxi Driver” Scorsese had filmed them during the era of “Some Girls,” the 1978 work that is generally regarded as their last unquestionably great album. If either of these dream projects had actually occurred, the results might have be spectacular enough to land them on the relatively short list of all-time-great concert films along with the likes of “The Last Waltz,” “Stop Making Sense” and “Neil Young: Heart Of Gold.”However, the two wouldn’t team up until the fall of 2006, when the group arrived at New York’s Beacon Theater for a couple of benefit shows for Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation towards the end of their tour in support of one of their weakest albums, “A Bigger Bang,” and Scorsese, then riding high on the success of “The Departed,” was brought in to get it all on film. The challenge for the Stones was to see if they could replicate the high energy of their stadium blowouts in an intimate theater setting in which sheer spectacle would for once take a backseat to their musicianship. For his part, Scorsese faced an even bigger challenge–how does one present a fresh cinematic take on a band that has already been documented so extensively in previous films? The resulting film, “Shine a Light,” is a work that is both brilliant and frustrating in equal measure. On the one hand, as an audio-visual record of the Stones on stage cranking out the hits, it is an exceptional work that even rivals the titanic “At the Max” in the way that it captures the power and energy that they bring to their stage performances. On the other hand, that is pretty much all that it is and while that may be enough for most viewers, some longtime fans of the Stones and/or Scorsese may come away from it slightly disappointed that it doesn’t really do much of anything beyond that.
Okay, there is a little more to the film than a mere recording of a couple of concerts. The first fifteen minutes or so does a good job of encapsulating the chaos surrounding the staging of even a modest-sized concert. We see Mick Jagger receiving and rejecting any number of staging concepts from various locations. We see Martin Scorsese trying to figure out a way of finding a balance between the requirements needed for a live performance with the elements that he needs in order to transform it into an equally compelling cinematic experience. (There is much discussion over an elaborate lighting effect that would look spectacular but could well incinerate Jagger–as Scorsese puts it, “We want the effect but we can’t burn him.”) We see the other band members–Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts–rehearsing and greeting a never-ending parade of dignitaries in the hours leading up to the main event. (In one priceless moment, we get to see Richards, that most dissolute of rockers, charm the socks off of Hilary Clinton’s mother when the two are introduced.) Most of the drama surrounds Scorsese’s constantly ignored requests for a set list so that he can plan out as many camera shots in advance as possible (as he did so famously in “The Last Waltz”)–what good is it to have 16 cameras capturing the action if he doesn’t have any of them properly trained on whomever in the band is responsible for kicking off the first song? Eventually, the set list arrives, the show begins and the rest of the film consists of eighteen songs culled from those two nights–kicking off with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” concluding with (SPOILER ALERT) “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and including a heavy emphasis on tunes from “Some Girls”–that are occasionally interspersed with old footage of the band at various stages of their career in segments that comment on subjects ranging from the potentially evil message behind their music to the question of whether they see themselves still playing together in a few years, a question that was being asked of them back in the mid-1960's.
As with most Rolling Stones events in recent years, the group has invited a number of special guest stars to join in on a few songs–the usual formulation is to have one blues legend to pay homage to their R&B roots, one contemporary rocker to indicate that they are still connected with what the kids are listening to today and one hot babe to strut around on stage in order to remind viewers of Jagger’s reputation as a sex god. This time around, the blues legend is played by Buddy Guy, who chimes in with a rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Champagne & Reefer,” the rocker is essayed by Jack White, who trades verses with Jagger on the “Exile on Main Street” track “Lovin Cup” and the babe role is filled out (in more ways than one) by Christina Aguilera, who gyrates with Jagger in a duet on “Live With Me.” Of these appearances, the most impressive turn comes from Buddy Guy, whose no-nonsense approach pushes the band into a grittier mode that reminds us that they were once a great blues band before becoming a viable commercial product (to paraphrase Paul Shaffer’s version of Don Kirshner). White’s contribution is nothing special but he is so clearly thrilled with the thought of tearing through the song’s country-honk vibe alongside Jagger that you can’t help but feel kindly towards him. The most questionable of the guest appearances is the one contributed by Aguilera. This is not a criticism of her, per se–personally, I kind of like her, she actually has the kind of powerhouse voice that was made for a song like “Live With Me” and aside from possibly Joss Stone or Shakira, I can’t think of another current pop princess who could have carried it off as well as she does here. The problem with her presence kicks in when she and Jagger start grinding on each other (actually, he does far more of it) in what appears to be an effort to generate the kind of on-stage heat that Jagger created with Tina Turner during his Live Aid appearance–the age difference between the two is so pronounced and makes for such a grisly sight that I would venture to guess that after watching this particular sequence, most members of the audience will find themselves wishing that Aguilera’s role had been played by Sheryl Crow or someone else a little more age-appropriate.
As a record of the Rolling Stones in concert, “Shine a Light” is an undeniably thrilling experience. Of course, watching Jagger prance across the stage with the kind of energy and vigor that would put a rocker a third of his age to shame is always a thrill to behold but the other members of the band hold up their ends as well. Richards is, of course, a force of nature but his musicianship gets equal time here–watching him trading guitar licks with co-guitarist Ron Wood via a near-psychic connection is something beautiful to behold and his solo spots (“Connection” and “You Got the Silver”) are among the high points of the entire film. In the background, drummer Charlie Watts never resorts to the histrionics that some rock drummers engage in so as to be noticed, but instead keeps the beat with such crisp precision without ever seeming to go on autopilot that it is no surprise that when the entire band is introduced towards the end, his name inspires one of the biggest rounds of applause. Scorsese more than holds up his end of the bargain–while the film may not necessarily break new cinematic ground, the film is as immaculately put together as any of his other documentaries and he even lucks into a few magical moments here and there, the most memorable being the one during the rendition of the otherwise silly “Faraway Eyes” when Richards’ attempts to harmonize with Jagger inspires a bit of a standoff that perfectly encapsulates the creative tensions between the two that have fueled their partnership (and nearly broken them apart) for so many years. A lot of credit for this should go to the small army of cinematographers that Scorsese recruited to man the 16 cameras that were used. Although the great Robert Richardson gets the director of photography credit, the other cameramen are no slouches themselves. Remember that part in “Blues Brothers 2000" where we hear about this pick-up band called the Louisiana Gator Boys and when we see them, they consist of the likes of Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Robert Cray, Bo Diddley, Jimmie Vaughan and a dozen others of their equal rank? Essentially, Scorsese has brought together the Louisiana Gator Boys of cinematography to the film and every one of them has clearly brought their A game.
The problem with “Shine a Light” is not what is on the screen but what isn’t up there. For starters, despite a couple of curve balls (such as the duets and a rendition of “She Was Hot”), the set list is hardly the most inventive that they could have come up with–not only are the songs on display largely the most familiar selections from their extensive songbook, there is not a single thing here on display that debuted after 1983 with the possible exception of Christina Aguilera’s chest. Granted, I can see why they might have been reticent to include anything from the generally useless “A Bigger Bang” and they probably skipped “Has Anybody Seen My Baby” in order to avoid paying k.d. lang any royalties, but do the Stones really think that audiences would get up from their seats and stalk out in droves if they dared to eschew “Satisfaction” for such recent gems as “Thief of the Night,” “One Hit to the Body” or “Mixed Emotions”? Hell, I know for a fact that if they had included “Harlem Shuffle,” my own mother would have paid to see the film twice.
As I said, the lack of any real invention from the set list is not exactly a surprise but other absences are somewhat more disturbing. For one, more than four decades after infamously changing the lyric of one of their songs to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” in order to appease Ed Sullivan, the Stones have once again cleaned up a few of their raunchier lines, presumably so as not to offend the Clintons and other dignitaries in the audience or to score an all-important PG-13 rating–“Sympathy for the Devil” loses the line about the Kennedys, “Some Girls” omits the controversial verse about the sexual capacity of black women and there are a couple of moments when F-bombs have been conspicuously muted so as not to hurt anyone’s sensibilities. Adding to my suspicion that things were cleaned up to avoid offending the Clintons, performances of “Little T&A” and “Undercover of the Night” were recorded and are available on the soundtrack but do not appear in the film–the former presumably needs no explanation while the latter, with its lyrics about violence and civil war in Central America, might have brought back frightening memories of Hillary Clinton being pinned down by sniper fire in Bosnia. Another problem I had was with the vintage film footage of the band that pops up occasionally to serve as a sort of thumbnail history of the band. What we get is often amusing to watch (such as Jagger’s televised debate with religious and political leaders) but while these moments do touch on some aspects of the band’s long and storied past, there are many other elements that aren’t touched on at all–at no point during the film will you see or here any reference to such subjects as Brian Jones, Bill Wyman, Altamont or the various Jagger-Richards squabbles that threatened to overwhelm the group in the 1980's. Of course, these things have been dealt with in detail in other places over the years but by including some portions of the group’s past while leaving others to the side, especially potentially contentious ones like these, you get the sense that the Stones are trying to gloss over their bad boy past in an odd bid for respectability.Don’t get me wrong, “Shine a Light” is a spectacularly entertaining film that is an absolute must-see for anyone with even the vaguest interest in rock music in general and the Rolling Stones in particular. Whatever disappointment I have indicated here is based less on what is on the screen and more on the fact that the idea of the Stones and Scorsese teaming up would result in some transcendent work of art that would bridge the gap between rock music and film in a way that had never been done before. They haven’t done that here but in their defense, that clearly wasn’t their intention. Instead, what they have done is put together a superlative concert film that shows one of the greatest bands of all time at their best while reminding contemporary audiences–who have of late been weaned on a musical diet of one-hit wonders, anonymous pop tarts and soulless synthesized confections–of what rock music can achieve in the hands of people who do it, no matter how old they are, because it is in their blood.. In the long run, that may well be the more important achievement anyway. After all, as a wise band once said, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you’ll find that you get what you need.
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