Shine a Light Review
The Rolling Stones and Martin Scorsese go back a long way: it’s hard to forget Robert De Niro walking into a bar to the accompaniment of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. And the Stones have been documented before: in Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling (extracts from which appear in Shine a Light), chillingly and brilliantly in Gimme Shelter, notoriously in Robert Frank’s legally-suppressed Cocksucker Blues. That’s not an exhaustive list. They’ve even been in IMAX before in the 1991 At the Max. So what can Shine a Light offer?
The film captures the band over two nights at New York’s Beacon theatre. A twenty-minute prologue takes us backstage, with Scorsese and the Stones preparing for the big nights. Some of this footage is handheld black and white, shot by Albert Maysles, the co-director of Gimme Shelter. Scorsese is troubled by not having a song list in advance. There are disputes over the stage set. Bill Clinton lives out a lifelong ambition and “opens for” (well, introduces) the Stones. Then the concert begins. (If you’re watching in IMAX, the picture expands at this point from normal cinema-screen size to the full five-storeys-high dimensions.)
As a display of filmmaking technique, there’s no doubt that Shine a Light is highly proficient. Lead DP Robert Richardson and several other distinguished DPs working as camera operators do a superb job, expertly choreographed so that they don’t get in each other’s way and often coming in astonishingly close. With the aid of backing vocalists, a horn section and a third guitarist, not to mention permanent bassist Darryl Jones content to stay of the limelight, four men with a combined age of around 250 but the energy of those half their age put on quite a show. Charlie Watts is as unflappable as ever behind his drumkit, Keith Richards and new-boy-of-three-decades’-standing Ronnie Wood are a compelling double act on guitar. Wood also gets to show off his abilities on slide guitar and pedal steel. But Jagger is very much the star of the show: he’s very trim for his age though the camera’s close-up scrutiny is very revealing of the lines on his face and on those of his bandmates’. There’s a sense that success has enabled him to remain in adolescence past retirement age, and his bump-and-grind duet with Christina Aguilera (a woman thirty-seven years his junior) is carried off without any apparent irony. By contrast, Jack White seems delighted to be on stage, duetting with Jagger on “Loving Cup”.
At natural breaks, Scorsese inserts documentary footage from the 60s, 70s and 80s into the film. Much of this is well-known, especially the post-drug-bust Jagger debating with worthies of the time in a 60s World in Action. You have to pinch yourselves to realise (or remember) that back this band were considered in some quarters emblematic of the decline of civilisation and its moral values. Despite all the photogenic young women standing (or planted?) near the front, it’s clear that the audience is mainly made up of Baby Boomers, such as the Clintons. Sex and drug references abound (though some of the more un-PC lyrics have been removed) but the Stones nowadays more often inspire affection than fear. Back then newspapers asked if you would let your daughter marry one of them – nowadays, would you want one as your granddad?
That said, they put on a good show, but I’m not convinced it’s a great one. For a band of this calibre, coasting is a lesser outfit’s full-pelt, but coasting is what this is. This is the work of men who are no longer hungry and have nothing left to prove. But for a short while, Shine a Light raises its game, when Buddy Guy comes on stage and performs Muddy Waters’s “Champagne and Reefer” with the Stones. He’s in great voice – for a few minutes even Jagger is overshadowed – and his guitar-work stings. But he’s only on for this one song, and when he leaves – with Ronnie Wood presenting him with his guitar as a gift - Shine a Light settles back down again.
If anyone else had made Shine a Light we’d be impressed. But Scorsese has made a concert movie before, a great one, in 1976’s The Last Waltz. Maybe it’s the occasion: the earlier film recorded The Band’s farewell concert and something of the atmosphere of the event and the calibre of the guests, not to mention the quality of the music, is there in the celluloid. Shine a Light, by contrast, is slick, giving its audience what it wants and rarely challenging them. Two hours of it is certainly more than enough.