Friday, April 04, 2008

"Shine a Light" -- * * * *

Martin Scorsese's "Shine a Light," a documentary of two Rolling Stones concerts (seamlessly blended together as one) performed at New York's Beacon Theatre in the Fall of 2006, is truly awesome, in every sense of the word. I'll admit, I love the Stones as much as anyone-- they occupy a significant chunk of my iPod-- but I honestly didn't expect to love this movie. Usually "like" is the glass ceiling on concert films for me; I tend to think live performances lose more than a bit in translation and filmed versions usually just serve to capture some video of songs I like being performed, and not make for particularly thrilling cinema. But while not offering the artist-probing insight of Scorsese's "The Last Waltz" and "No Direction Home"-- this is truly a concert film, not a musician documentary-- "Shine a Light" really knocked me out. When its two hours had elapsed, I felt like I had really seen the Stones live.

Before jumping into the performance, the film's mostly black-and-white opening 15 minutes are an excellent, funny, illuminating summation of the planning for the filming of these particular concerts by Scorsese (the only part of the film he appears in before the final seconds). We see the fast-talking filmmaker conferring with Mick Jagger about the set, the camera placements and most elusively, the set list. Scorsese, try as he might, doesn't wring a list of songs to be played out of the band until minutes before the show, and the brief glimpse we get (literally blink-and-you'll-miss-it) of how Jagger picks them is fascinating (he separates all Stones songs into categories of well-known, medium-known and unknown to create a proper mix for each concert). We also get to see the brief interactions Bill and *shudder* Hillary Clinton, the hosts of the benefit concert, have with the Stones pre-concert, and Keith Richards joking that he should walk up to Bill and say "Hey Clinton, I'm Bushed!" Ah, the Richards wit. This opening segment serves as a perfect precursor to the concert footage, but I'd love to see it expanded into a feature of its own.

Provided you see it on a big screen with killer sound (I've heard the IMAX version is amazing), the concert experience of "Shine a Light" is unparalleled. We are completely immersed in the performance and, arguably, thanks to some filmmaking techniques employed, get a better, more heightened experience than those actually in the audience of the concert. Scorsese and his team of cinematographers use a plethora of close-ups and sudden swoops that engage you in the proceedings that simply couldn't have been accomplished with static shots of performances. The band is also wildly overlit from the back, creating a bright, more (literally) illuminating concert experience than I can ever recall seeing on film. As for those d.p.s, Scorsese and lenser Robert Richardson ("The Aviator") have assembled an all-star Dream Team of 17 cinematographers as camera operators, resulting in the film always being exciting to look at; just some included in that 17 are Robert Elswit ("There Will Be Blood"), John Toll ("The Thin Red Line"), Emmanuel Lubezki ("Children of Men") and Andrew Lesnie (the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) It's also got to be said that a startling aesthetic change of pace from "Gimme Shelter" and "Cocksucker Blues" is that these guys are really fucking old. We, of course, know this, but seeing them on a massive screen is another thing entirely; you best be prepared.

The band performs about two-dozen of their songs, taking up about 90 minutes of the movie, and the sheer amount leaves little possibility for fans' disappointment. Some of their hits are noticeably left out (I could be mistaken, but I don't believe "Paint It Blank," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Wild Horses" or "Let It Loose" were on the bill), but there's a fairly nice mix of regular staples and rarely/never-performed ones. Classics like "Satisfaction" and the great-but-overvalued-in-the-Stones-pantheon "Start Me Up" sound great, but generally, the really special numbers here are the ones where the band is joined by a "special guest." Christina Aguilera adds some much-needed sexiness to the stage in "Live with Me," Buddy Guy takes the stage to co-sing "Champage and Reefer," and best of all, Jack White shows up (looking like a chubbier version of Johnny Depp's character in "Corpse Bride") to duet with Mick on an excellent rendition of "Loving Cup." And while I admittedly was grinning for pretty much the whole performance, some other highlights for me were a great version of "Evening of the Day," the rarely performed country-music parody "Far Away Eyes," and a particularly thrilling "Sympathy for the Devil," with Jagger emerging from "hell," the entrance doors of the Beacon.

Though drummer Charlie Watts and bassist Ronnie Wood get their moments, Mick and Keith are, needless to say, the stars of this show, and make for pretty dynamic subjects. Jagger does his manic, eye-popping dancing that I couldn't even attempt now, let alone at 63, and, to put it mildly, wildly upstages Bono's laughable attempts in "U2 3D." It's practically his defining characteristic by now, but it never ceases to astound me how filled with energy and unlimited vitality Jagger is. He also has an infectious sense of humor about himself, shown early on mid-"Shattered" when he poses in place for a fan taking a picture with their cell phone. Keith, on the other hand, is a whole different story. He's horrifying by this point, yes, but he's also a miracle and a force of nature, and this film acknowledges that. When he circles Buddy Guy with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, he looks disturbingly like a monster going in for the kill, but he's alive, he's happy, and he's still a ton of fun to watch. When he takes center stage at the 75-minute mark to sing "You Got the Silver" and "Connection," he shows the level of his presence.

But while the film is a terrific sensory experience, what makes it more than that is the archived interviews and newsreel footage interspersed between every few songs. Mostly serving to acknowledge the longevity of the group, and the how and why of them staying together, these clips really add something, and make the whole affair (performances included) oddly moving. The way they're used to punctuate certain performances lend a level of resonance and humor to the film, giving it more of an impact than just "that was a blast." Two particular interviews with a young Mick amusingly seem to sum up his career: (1) when asked in an early '70s interview how much longer the Stones will carry on playing, he responds, "at least another year," and (2) in response to Dick Cavett's question of "Can you picture yourself at age 60 doing what you're doing now?," Mick, without missing a beat, answers "Oh yeah. Easily."

Closing with an awe-inspiring zoom out over Manhattan Island, Scorsese does a lot here to lift "Shine a Light" heads and shoulders above the standard concert film. Where past music docs have been elegaic or introspective, this one is positively electric, as well as visually astounding (and I didn't even see it in IMAX!).Scorsese gives you a lot of movie here, and a lot of concert-- it runs about two hours-- but I'd imagine most fans will consider that a good thing. Will you like it if you hate the Stones? Well, probably not, but fuck you anyway. If you hate the Stones, who cares what you think?

"Shine a Light" opens today on 250 standard-format screens nationwide, as well as 93 IMAX screens. I recommend you see it in in the largest, loudest way you can.


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