Martin Scorsese’s long history with musical documentaries and concert films includes working as assistant director and editor on Woodstock (1970), directing an account of The Band’s final concert as The Last Waltz (1978), executive producing and designing the shots for Peter Gabriel’s concert film PoV (AKA Point of View, 1987), directing part of the massive The Blues television documentary series (2003), and crafting the definitive Bob Dylan and George Harrison documentaries No Direction Home (2005) and Living in the Material World (2010).
Shine a Light is a little of all the above, but mostly a straightforward concert film featuring the Rolling Stones in a benefit concert thrown at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 2006. The Stones are joined by special guests Christina Aguilera, Jack White, and Buddy “Motherfucker” Guy (watch the DVD bonus features for the entertaining story behind that moniker). It was originally released in IMAX, and no doubt loses something in translation from 50-foot theaters screens to small televisions. U2 did them one up by releasing U23D in 3D IMAX the year before.
Like Gimme Shelter (1970), a documentary account of the fallout following the killing of a fan at a Stones concert in Altamont, Shine a Light is sometimes a little less than totally flattering. Mick Jagger is seen to be so ruthlessly single-minded that he will not deign to collaborate with Scorsese. Even when meeting no less than Bill Clinton, he only wants to talk about whether or not the lighting will distract from his performance. But to be fair, The Rolling Stones hit the big time long before either Scorsese or Clinton, so perhaps Jagger’s vanity may be partially excused. Let it not be said that the old codgers in the band don’t embrace new technology; witness as Jagger strikes classic poses for fans in the front row to capture on their mobiles.
Scorsese is famously a fan, utilizing Rolling Stones tunes in his soundtracks so often that Jagger now jokes that “Shine a Light was the only film of his not to feature the song ‘Gimme Shelter'”. I like The Stones well enough, but I’m not a huge fan. Here’s what a similarly casual listener might learn of them based on Shine a Light:
- Charlie Watts, also a successful artist and jazz drummer outside of the Stones machine, comes across as quite distracted and aloof, or maybe even more drug-addled than Keith Richards. He behaves the same in vintage interviews scattered throughout Shine a Light, so perhaps it’s just his natural demeanor. But there’s no doubt he can still rock his stripped-down drum kit.
- Mick Jagger still has the body of a preteen girl, albeit one with impressively ripped arms.
- Everybody knows the legendary Keith Richards has abused his body to such an extent that he has no business still walking this earth. He jokes in the film that he must come from hardy stock, but maybe he is in fact already dead, seeing as how he barely notices a kiss from Christina Aguilera. He still has chops, though, beyond going through the highly rehearsed motions of a typical Stones spectacle. In a telling moment, the camera catches him alone, playing some moody blues licks to himself as the rest of the band hobnobs.
- Ronnie Wood comes across the best, reminding fans that although Keith Richards may have co-written many of the most popular and enduring rock songs of all time, he’s the one that plays all the solos.
Scorsese includes himself as a character in his own film, appearing at least twice in a characteristic tracking shot that caps the film: following the Stones offstage and out of the theater, and flying up into the night sky over New York. The world will have to wait for Scorsese’s true documentary on the Stones to equal No Direction Home and Living in the Material World as a true fan’s deep look into some of the world’s most interesting celebrities.