Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Shine a Light

It finally happened. After using The Rolling Stones' songs to perfect effect in multiple masterpieces, director Martin Scorsese finally said "why not?" and made an all-out concert film for his favorite band. I can't think of a popular group more intrinsically tied to a director, even though the Stones never really collaborated with him, so the idea of the two working together should excite any fan of both Scorsese and rock. The result, while certainly not as revelatory as Gimme Shelter, that horrifying snapshot of the crumbling of a civilization, is the best concert film since Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense.

The first ten minutes are a black and white behind-the-scenes montage of Scorsese stressing over getting all the cameras set up properly. In order to cover every possible angle of their electrifying shows, Scorsese hired ten--count 'em, ten--Oscar winning or nominated cinematographers and employed a number of moving cameras to glide across and above the stage. And there's where the problem sets in: Mick Jagger has a conference call with Scorsese in which he mentions how the cameras will distract both the band and the audience if they're always moving around. "It'd be good to have a camera that moves" the director says with a look of weariness on his face.

Later, someone mentions that the lights are so bright they can't force Mick to stand in front of them for too long because they will burn him. "They'll burn him? You mean like, flames?" asks an incredulous Scorsese. "We cannot burn Mick Jagger!" he exclaims to the vexed crew member. All of this only gets more complicated when Jagger cannot give him a definite set list. With his own hand-held camera Mick shows pieces of paper full of tentative lists with songs scratched out, added again, reorganized: he turns the camera around and bashfully tells Marty that he'll know the set list "about an hour" before they go on.

Then we get to the actual concert. Keith Richards hunches over his guitar, pounding out the chords to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" as Mick runs on stage and immediately reminds everyone that he's the greatest frontman in the history of rock. He's dances, claps, and pumps up an audience that (judging from the faces you see in the front row) aren't exactly old fuddy-duddies: plenty of teenagers and 20-somethings are looking up to these rock gods as if they just hit the scene.

Now, I've been a Stones fan for years: I'll take them over the Beatles any day of the week (yes, The Beatles are technically the better band, but the Stones are so much cooler), and I can't go three days without playing at the very least "Satisfaction." However, their reputation as a live act has somewhat eluded me; the only real live footage of them I've seen was Gimme Shelter, and of course we got very few breathtaking performances out of that documentary. But here, in this intimate venue, surrounded by these probing cameras, I have seen the Stones for what they really are: the best damn band you'd ever want to see.

How can men in their 60s be this virile? I thought Springsteen was a god for jumping on pianos and sliding around the stage at his age (and I still do), but the Stones have such an internal chemistry and athleticism that they could shame a host of choreographed boy bands. Jagger doesn't follow a strictly mapped series of steps, he flails on-stage with more understanding of the beat of the music than any rehearsed upstart. Behind him, Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards contort like backup dancers from hell: Richards in particular bends so low you wonder where his center of gravity could possibly be. I couldn't possibly bend over that far, and I'm neither in my 60s nor someone who consumed three lifetimes worth of alcohol and drugs.

It's impossible not to get pumped up by the Stones' incendiary performances, and I can't think of a concert film that's looked this polished yet still retains a personal feel. The definitive documentary of the band still is and will forever be Gimme Shelter, but Shine a Light belongs on the list of great concert films. Even if you don't like the Stones (and shame on you if you don't), you should still check this out to see the gargantuan undertaking of Scorsese and his platoon of cinematographers. Not to mention, it just might make a fan out of you yet.

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