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Some forty-two years ago, a little-seen hour-long documentary was filmed of an up-and-coming London blues band as they toured Ireland for the first time. Clearly meant to capitalise on the success of The Beatles’ cinematic odyssey, A Hard Day’s Night, Charlie is my Darling was only the opening salvo in a long-running courtship of the camera for The Rolling Stones.

In a movie career that included flights of fabulous self-indulgent whimsy (1968’s The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus), new wave meditations by Jean-Luc Godard (Sympathy for the Devil, 1968), and unintentionally cementing their image as Their Satanic Majesties (1970’s Gimme Shelter), there hasn’t been a decade since The Rolling Stones’ inception without a visual document. So, in the 46th year of their partnership and with their youngest member about to turn 60, it’s only fitting that the Stones sought out a very famous fan to helm their latest motion picture offering.

The sense of epic happening that Martin Scorsese’s name lends to Shine a Light is nearly as thrilling as its very basic premise of capturing the impossibly enduring excitement of a Rolling Stones live show. For many years, the Rolling Stones have sold their records mostly to their faithful legion of fans seemingly uncaring about trifles such a chart positions or album sales. They know their meat and majesty comes from their legendary live act. Scorsese lets the viewer close enough to truly marvel at the Fountain of Youth the Stones plunge into every night on stage. The up-close and intimate camerawork never pretties up the craggy depths of the Stones’ wrinkled faces that resemble a Mount Rushmore of Rock, yet allows us to feast on the boundless energy that each member pulls from the joy of their music and the pulse of their rapturous crowds. Scorsese’s ardent presence answers the question that is on the mind of any concert viewer, ‘How are they able to sound fresh playing the same songs for over 40 years?’ Keith Richards called their songs “our babies” during the press conference for the film, and they are still the proud parents of each ditty you hear on the oldies station today, except that to these men, these songs are still the stuff of BBC bans and frightened mothers everywhere. They attack the music as if they wrote the songs yesterday and they are only too proud to show them off to the awestruck crowd. Never mind that that crowd would be happy to just have Mick Jagger and Keith Richards read from the phonebook for them, they refuse to phone in their performance, working for every second of applause.

A word about Mick Jagger, or more precisely a word to his cook. Mr. Chef, if I promise not to tell anyone, will you please tell me what it is your employer eats? What exactly is the veggie to carb ratio going on there? How many pharmaceuticals are involved in gifting that 64-year-old man with the slim, fit physique that would put men a third his age to shame? While shown judiciously here, this grandfather’s got abs - and arms! Watching this senior citizen do his electric chicken dances as if it were 1972 - running at the crowd, prancing across the stage with automaton hips switching back and forth like Fleet Week in the red light district while never missing a beat (- or a lyric) is just too much. My vote for best special effects Oscar goes to whoever designed the Jaggerbot, or programmed the hologram, because that level of energy couldn’t be real, not for anyone, much less a man who gets junk mail from the AARP. Yet there he was, shaking it the way Tina Turner taught him and speaking in his Cockney Ebonics that transforms the Sympathy for the Devil lyric, “Tell me baby, what’s my name?” into Mushmouth’s chorus of “Tabbe be beebah, what’s ba debah?” Time may have had some way with his voice, he leaves some of the longer and higher notes to his backup singers, but other aspects have actually improved with age. 

The Stones bring out some guests to duet with them, including Jack White of the White Stripes and Christina Aguilera (- who was always the Stones to Britney’s Beatles), both are understandably in awe of sharing the stage with these rock icons. However, the Stones’ jam session on “Champagne and Reefer” with blues guitar legend Buddy Guy is the highlight of the show. In everything from playing to singing, Guy schools the Stones and in that moment you can see the young, mopheaded boys of 1965, who introduced Howlin’ Wolf as their guest on Shindig. They are awestruck, seemingly competing with each other for Guy’s attention; Mick Jagger’s blues harmonica skills are virtuoso, and in all the glamour of the social life of the ultimate jet-setter, you realised you’d forgotten he’s first and foremost a musician. Keith Richards allows Guy to shine (- I don’t think he could stop him if he tried), and hands him the guitar off his back at the end of the song. It’s a wonderful moment to realise that after all they’ve seen and done, that The Rolling Stones can still be impressed by anything they see on a stage.

Would that there were more eye-opening moments like these. Shine a Light opens with a mostly black and white montage of the feverish preparations to mount the show at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Martin Scorsese appears in these sequences as much the featured star as the Stones, indulging in director-speak as he ponders camera angles and rigging setups. His affectionate negotiations with Jagger for what the film crew can and cannot do that might affect the concert audience or the Stones onstage are hilarious. “It’s in the contract, we can’t set Mick Jagger on fire,” Scorsese explains to a lighting man whose plans include a crispier lead singer. It’s a nice running gag for the moment toward the end of the film when Jagger yells, “These lights are burning up my ass!” Scorsese’s panic in the absence of a set list until the very last moment before the band hits the stage is a scream. The prep sequences are some of the best in the film and I wish more had been included. With Scorsese’s access and the obvious trust the band placed in him, we missed a chance to get some great insight on what goes on backstage and in the planning stages of a Rolling Stones show.

The other highlight was the inclusion of the archival footage cut throughout the film giving counterpoint and history to the band of pensioners we are watching onstage. Watching the fresh-faced, wide-eyed 21-year old Jagger discuss his surprise with a reporter that his band has lasted a whopping two years and would probably be around for one more is priceless. Similarly, the footage of Jagger’s and Richards’ arrest after the infamous 1967 Redlands drug bust, shows just how much was made over very little: Jagger’s being made to sit with members of the clergy to discuss his wrongdoing had to have been ludicrous even then. Scorsese uses the archives sparingly enough to tease but not enough to distract (- except in the montage during Keith’s version of “Connection”; of course that would be one of our favourite songs) - but you can’t help but be awed by the history. I would love to see Scorsese do a documentary of his own based on his narrative powers and judicial use of the clips seen here. Those lively moments do buoy up some uneven pacing; Shine a Light is heavy on the slow and mid tempo stuff, and instead of making edits to move things along, Scorsese, like the good fan he is, allows the extended versions of many of the songs to play in their entirety and the whole films occasionally drags. Also working against Scorsese is the fact is that so many of these songs have been filmed before. Their lengthy version of “Just My Imagination” seemed to go on for hours; having seen the more abbreviated version filmed by Hal Ashby in 1983’s Let’s Spend the Night Together, I much prefer the earlier model. Besides Connection, the other ‘oh wow’ moment was the inclusion of "As Tears Go By", which Jagger explains they never played live before having been too embarrassed at writing it and handing it to a girl (- Marianne Faithfull).

I hope for more, ‘oh wow’ moments like these, but instead had to satisfy (- NPI) myself with an incredible performance by the Stones in a film that lives up to a bit less than it’s potential. The bar has been raised for concert films by the remarkable U23D, and I wish in its narrative and perhaps by making use of the technology available that Shine a Light had been equally innovative and extraordinary. However, as a Stones fan, it was still a thrill to see these Rock Gods of nearly half a century simply get up and put on a live show that would put any band of young whippersnappers to shame.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 28th, 2008


PS: Click here for our coverage of The Rolling Stones and Martin Scorsese's New York press conference, including our exclusive up close and personal photos from the front row!




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