Shine a Light (2008) / Musical-Documentary
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language, drug references and smoking (edited from an R)
Running time: 122 min
Cast: The Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts, Martin Scorsese, Bill Clinton, Jack White, Christina Aguilera, Buddy Guy, Lisa Fischer, Bernard Fowler, Darryl Jones, Hillary Clinton
Director: Martin Scorsese
Review published August 24, 2008
A return to musical documentaries, not only for Martin Scorsese (The Departed, The Aviator) , who famously captured the essence of The Band in The Last Waltz, but for the band he features, The Rolling Stones, who were in a classic toward the beginning of their career, Gimme Shelter (not to mention many unofficial ones). Both major forces in their respective forms of entertainment join together toward the tail ends of their careers for what might perhaps be their final hurrah on the big screen in terms of musical documentaries that capture live performances. Concert performances have long been thought to be a thing of the past, as premium cable and pay-per-view seems the way to go. However, when you have the kind of clout that the Stones have, and an Academy Award-winning director to call the shots, there exists a compelling reason to go see it on the big screen, especially in the IMAX experience that certain markets contained for Shine a Light.
The film is a merging of two consecutive performances given by the Stones from 2006 in New York's Beacon Theater (reportedly their final at the venue), during their "A Bigger Bang" tour. The concert was held to benefit Bill Clinton's Foundation (his birthday party, basically), and the former President also is featured prominently with wife Hillary during a meet-and-greet prior to the show. It doesn't really add to the performance, or the film, but when you have a U.S. President attending the event, it's impossible to think not to capture the moments for the film, especially as the band is shown to be so ingratiating in their warmest of welcomes to people they don't really know very well.
Interspersed throughout the live concert performance are clips from news reels and old television interviews from the Stones career in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Most of the clips are of their conjectures about their future together as a band, answering questions about how long they plan on doing what they do. These scenes give a context as to how long these four men have worked with one another (references to estranged co-founder and guitarist Brian Jones, who died in 1969, are completely avoided), and how extraordinary they are for being able to make good music and solid concerts year in and year out. Many consider them to be the greatest Rock and Roll band of all time, and while that will always be the subject of great debates, it's hard to argue against them not being the greatest to still be together over the last 40 years.
63-year-old Mick Jagger may have grown much more mannered in his performances, and less intelligible in his delivery, but the band that backs him up is still perfection. Jagger's lack of coherence is partially due to the fact that he's done these songs so many times that he has changed them through constant repetition to the point where the words are hardly necessary for the impact of the song, his voice merely another musical instrument to keep the sound authentic for each particular song. Jagger takes a breather, allowing band mate Keith Richards his chance to sing a couple of tunes. Richards is not blessed with such a voice that most would want to hear outside of a Stones performance, but the crowd is on his side in singing along, not caring that the vocals aren't from Jagger. Special guests emerge from time to time to do duets with Jagger, including White Stripes vocalist Jack White, blues man Buddy Guy, and dynamic pop vocalist (still sporting the wanna-be porn star look) Christina Aguilera.
Scorsese gives himself a minor role in a mostly non-documentary bookend to the film setting up for the concert, as well as the back stage rush to the tour bus. He isn't intrusive to the overall performance in between, mostly allowing his camera men to capture to feel and energy of the performance by getting up close to the performers, and fluidly allowing for movement in automated cameras that circle the stage and crowd overhead. Collaborating again with cinematographer Robert Richardson, one of several veterans working the cameras throughout the venue, this is about as good a concert performance as I've ever seen from a technical standpoint, with strikingly beautiful images, lighting textures and editing. Scorsese also removes the many lulls that often accompany live performances. The introductions and thank yous are trimmed to a minimum, and he's also excised a few songs from the theatrical release, such as "Paint It Black" (which are provided as special features on the DVD release).
When it's all said and done, the one thing that you take away from Shine a Light, other than hearing some great tunes and performances stunningly photographed, is that these men have done all that they've done because, to their very core, they love to play music. They've been able to incorporate a variety of style, have worked with many legends, and have influenced a great many in the present and future to come. You can see it in their weathered eyes, they love the energy and love poured over them without end by the audience that comes to see them perform. It revitalizes them to continue another day, another year, another decade.
""Can you picture yourself doing this at 60?," Dick Cavett asks in a 1972 interview. Jagger replies, "Oh yeah. Easily."
Though the jokes continue to persist about their age, seeing grandfathers on stage trying to put on a rock concert, Shine a Light should silence any jeers, as they can rock a crowd like few have ever done. If Rock and Roll will never die, then the Rolling Stones are immortalized, as they are Rock 'n' Roll personified.
©2008 Vince Leo