Shine a Light Review

Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese's concert film about The Rolling Stones, somehow seems like an entirely appropriate result of an equally apt creative pairing. A filmmaker widely (and loudly) considered to have made his best work years, if not decades, ago teamed with a band permanently tapped into the vein of nostalgia. The result is a film that, by necessity, recalls the superior projects Gimme Shelter and The Last Waltz, only without any of the daring chaos or importance of either. The question of exactly what the point, aside from whatever obvious Stones fan Scorsese derived on a personal level, could be in finding one of rock and roll's bedrock titans continuing to breathe long-dead air for the benefit of an audience hardly bothered to do more than bob their balding and bleached heads was foremost in my mind throughout the film.

As some background, what's seen in Shine a Light was mostly filmed on the 1st of November, 2006, the second and final night of an unusual stand at New York City's 2,800-seat Beacon Theatre. Unusual because of the small venue size and, also, due to the shows being benefits in celebration of President Bill Clinton's 60th birthday. Clinton is rewarded with a cameo in Scorsese's filmed account. His appearance and others' help prevent it from entirely being a straight concert movie, though it teeters excruciatingly close during full-length versions of clunkers like "Far Away Eyes." The opening is promising, with often hilarious (and much too brief) peeks into Scorsese's process of corralling the band into his filmmaking arena. What follows is a good deal of time spent trying to delude anyone who'll watch into thinking The Rolling Stones are something other than a glorified cover band. An inventive ending then riles the viewer back into consciousness, just in time for the credits where the film's title song is finally unveiled (without accompanying performance footage). For all the song performances (17 in total) we see, it's the little prologue and a consistent series of interstitial vintage interviews that make Shine a Light worth watching. The minor shame is that Scorsese looks to have been keen on making the songs the focus instead of the more interesting examination as to why this band has persisted for decades now without expanding on their vast legacy.

In terms of simply the performances, there's hardly anything extraordinary or compelling about what's shown. A perfunctory "Jumpin' Jack Flash" leads off with Mick Jagger flailing epileptically about. "Shattered" follows, but the trend of the most known songs rarely delivering any excitement or jolt continues throughout the show. Some of it is Jagger's geriatric voice, which is good all things considered, but no one's charged in those terms. Another part is the attempt at providing a more full sound by adding horns and backup singers. As a general rule, if a saxophone isn't present on an iconic rock recording, it's not necessary to add it in concert decades after the fact. Additionally, the one-two-three punch of "Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" to close the film does it no favours. They sound like versions played by a group churning out performances in the hundreds with little amendment or amusement. The whole shindig makes you feel like you showed up uninvited to someone else's birthday party. (Which we all sort of did.)

Nonetheless, the thrill of hearing several particular Stones' bits and pieces never gets old. Opening riffs at the hands of Keith Richards will always provide some basic level of enjoyment. Once the song takes shape, you may wish they'd stuck to those initial chords, but that primal reaction to Richards' guitar intro on "Satisfaction" remains invigorating. The unfortunate aspect of hearing that or any other esteemed song in Shine a Light is that the reason people are still presumably so willing to shell out astronomical sums of money to see The Rolling Stones, that perverse badge of braggadocio in saying you saw these guys in the flesh, will not be in effect. Thus, the musical performances fall under a stricter scrutiny. The glow of being in the presence of Keith Richards and his deep-set simian wrinkles looses something on a widescreen plasma set.

For our troubles, we're given a trio of special guest appearances, some less special than others. White Stripe/Raconteur/alien life form Jack White (include III if you're in a patronising mood) adds voice and acoustic guitar to "Loving Cup" early in the film. He balances awe and professionalism quite well and the duet is a highlight. He can't really compete with Buddy Guy joining in for "Champagne & Reefer," but few could. When the Stones turn especially bluesy they defy the odds and still seem relevant. When they're joined by Buddy Guy, the earth shakes a little somewhere. In contrast, when Christina Aguilera brings the peroxide contingent to "Live with Me," mirrors across the world shatter. Her repulsive grinding with Jagger shatters a few other things, none of them good.

Among the strictly Stones' performances, highlights include the rarely played "As Tears Go By," Keith Richards on vocals for "You've Got the Silver" and "Connection," and a nondescript, but still entertaining rendition of "Sympathy for the Devil." Motivational questions do come up from time to time, especially when Jagger seems in on an interpretative dance joke no one else is privy to, though Scorsese is equally to blame for any narrative bumps. The director chooses to let all performances except "Connection" play through without interruption. Often the quality of the show doesn't demand this reverence and the viewer may find those little breaks between songs where older interviews are pulled from the archives as being preferable to the supposed main attraction. Drummer Charlie Watts, in particular, comes across as one badass cool dude in these vintage blasts, even while eerily resembling Anton Chigurh.

No one really wants to read how a mediocre film could supposedly be improved, but turning the focus on those interview clips might have been a start. By simply giving the floor to the band's song performances, Scorsese has resisted portraying anything aside from how boring The Rolling Stones have become with time and the safety of revenue. Only in those varied pieces of band interviews throughout the years should we interpret a germ of an idea or rationalisation behind bringing the aged icons to the fore once again. Studying their initial intentions, their longevity amid multiple obstacles, and their mindboggling ability to continue keeping people's interests could be fascinating. Merely showing tired performances reinforces their current irrelevance.

The Disc

Director Martin Scorsese employed a variety of ace camera persons to shoot Shine a Light, headed by Robert Richardson and also including Robert Elswit, John Toll, and Emmanuel Lubezki among many others. Several different types of cameras and film formats were utilised in the process. A small bit of the footage is grainy black and white on 16 mm (shot by Albert Maysles, co-director of Gimme Shelter). Some is 35 mm, both in colour and black and white, and there's even some high definition digital work, as well. The majority, however, is the concert portion, which was mainly filmed with an arsenal of 35 mm cameras. The result is a phenomenal picture quality and Paramount's R1 DVD boasts an excellent transfer looking very much how the film did in cinemas. Colours are rich and bold. The grain that should be present is, while leaving detail crisp and contrast impressive. It would probably be incorrect to say this is the "best" The Rolling Stones have ever looked on DVD, but claiming it as the most vivid isn't a stretch. Everything is pristine. While the dual-layered disc has set the aspect ratio at 1.78:1 and enhanced for widescreen television sets, the older interviews are presented matted at 1.33:1 with black bars on the sides.

The audio is available in both English Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 tracks. Unless you're trying not to wake or disturb someone while viewing, the DD 5.1 option should be preferable. It emits a solid mix of the band's sound, always crystal clear and almost unnaturally error-free. Volume levels are extremely robust and should not disappoint. My only complaint, and not an insubstantial one, is the somewhat wasted use of the rear channels. Vocals and instruments are mostly heard through the front speakers while audience noise is isolated in the back. An even fuller sound would seem preferable to clapping and whistling. Yellow-coloured subtitles are offered in English, Spanish, and French for the feature and the supplements. The subtitles unfortunately only cover dialogue, and not the songs.

The creatively named "Supplemental Featurette" (15:10) provides some extra footage left out of the film and is mostly a grab bag of pre-show rehearsal and preparation, once again mixed with archival interviews. I do think I liked most of this seemingly mundane material more than part of what's in the actual movie. It serves to humanise the band members in a way not found in the main feature. Four separate "bonus performances" are also here. "Undercover the Night" (4:25), "Paint It Black" (4:39), "Little T & A" (4:09), and "I'm Free" (3:34) are all viewable separately or using a "play all" option. A list of credits for the extras is found as a menu option, as are previews (13:42) for several films. Shine a Light's trailer is, however, noticeably absent. A paper insert advertising the Shine a Light soundtrack can be found inside the DVD case.

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