"Shine a Light" did something I didn't think was possible. It got me caring about the Rolling Stones again.
A documentary record of a two-night stand at New York's Beacon Theatre in the fall of 2006, the film marks a collision between two of pop culture's most stubbornly instinctive creative forces, director Martin Scorsese and Stones frontman Mick Jagger. On the surface, it's not much of a contest: 63 when the film was shot, Jagger remains the Energizer Bunny of rock stars, a miracle of good genes, modern chemistry, or both. The voltage he exudes onstage is nothing less than astounding. I think I pulled a muscle just watching him.
Scorsese, by contrast, lays low after some pre-concert scenes in which we see him fretting comically about a missing set list. Like Hitchcock, the director understands the cartoon that is his public persona - the chatty, movie-obsessed "Marty" - and he has great fun playing with it for a while. But then to the business at hand.
Why a Stones concert film, and why now? The band has been spent as a necessary pop force since the early '80s. Admit it: Everything after "Tattoo You" is marketing and sweat equity. There's nothing wrong with that; all artists live off the fumes of their most fertile period, and by any measure the Stones had an incredible run. Their music - incisive, mean, at times both frightening and beautiful - was a critical ingredient of the youth explosion from 1964 to 1972, and their bad-boy attitude echoed for years after. It echoes still.
Yet the experience of seeing the group play in the past two decades has usually been a letdown: tiny figures on a giant stadium stage playing old hits through a watery arena sound system. The Rolling Stones are a corporate brand, and everyone wants a piece: During the pre-show rehearsals in the film, the entire Clinton family and entourage climbs the stage to shake hands with the real legends.
The surprise is that "Shine a Light" reclaims the notion of a Stones concert, building slowly yet inexorably until it seems as if the entire movie theater is vibrating. (The film's playing on area
The close quarters of the Beacon's stage brings the boys closer together - Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, drummer Charlie Watts (his sense of swing still the band's secret weapon), along with bassist Darryl Jones, keyboardist Chuck Leavell, a horn section, and backup singers. The band's within reach of each other again, and the camaraderie is palpable.
As Jagger is the ringmaster in front of the cameras, Scorsese is the maestro behind them, assembling a crew under Robert Richardson that reads like a Who's Who of award-winning cinematographers. The cameras swoop and dive, bank and rise, racing toward Jagger as he's dashing toward them. "Shine a Light" isn't one of Scorsese's most personal projects, but could any other director have turned classic rock into something so intensely kinetic?
And there's the music, which mixes expected chestnuts ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Tumbling Dice," "Start Me Up") with a few surprises ("Connection" from the album "Between the Buttons": That is digging deep) and which builds to a pitch of expert frenzy that not even the appearance of Christina Aguilera can dissipate. She's a guest vocalist on "Live With Me," and Jack White of the White Stripes turns up for "Loving Cup." Next to Buddy Guy, they're just babies, and when that venerable bluesman lights into Muddy Waters's "Champagne & Reefer," even Jagger seems like an awed student.
My one complaint is that the sound mix favors Mick's vocals over the sonic juggernaut of the band as a whole. If your favorite Stones album is "Exile on Main Street," in which the vocals are way down in the murk, this is distracting, but any karmic imbalance is righted when Keef takes the microphone for a lovely, warm slide-guitar trawl through "You Got the Silver." If Jagger remains the careerist of the band, Richards has become its living treasure: a benevolent rock wreck.
This isn't the "definitive" Stones documentary the way Scorsese's "No Direction Home" was for Dylan. Every so often, "Shine a Light" goes to the archival well, pulling up vintage interviews to provide a sense of the band's history, but these are a distraction from the immediacy of the concert. The Stones have always been about the moment rather than its meaning. They play the old songs not for nostalgia's sake but to insist the tunes still have impact - can still get you out of your seat dancing.
One clip's a hoot, though: Dick Cavett asking Jagger in 1972, "Can you picture yourself at age 60 doing what you do now?" He answers, "Yeah, easily," and the audience laughs because in 1972 old men did not rock. But Mick is serious, confident. He's in this thing for life.