It’s impossible to walk into “Shine a Light,” Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert film, without decades’ worth of expectations. We simply know too much about the filmmaker and the rock stars and their previous music-doc outings.
Seeing Mick Jagger thrusting and flailing about with his trademark sexuality and sass to “Sympathy for the Devil” calls to mind the violence that erupted as the Stones played that very song nearly 40 years ago at the Altamont Speedway, site of the Maysles brothers’ still-gripping documentary “Gimme Shelter.”
Of course, Scorsese has shown an affinity with this type of material in his own classic, 1978’s “The Last Waltz,” which chronicled The Band’s epic, final performance. And then there’s the director’s use of the Stones’ song “Gimme Shelter” in various movies, including his Academy Award winner, “The Departed.”
There is no such thing as a blank slate with such cultural icons — too much informs our viewing experience — and that’s both one of the film’s biggest strengths and weaknesses.
Certainly, there’s an allure to the familiarity of watching these guys run through old favorites such as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Shattered” and “Brown Sugar.” Yet, now that they’re in their 60s, they (read: Mick) almost seem like parodies of themselves.
“Shine a Light” doesn’t shine any new light on this rock band that has outlasted all others, perhaps because there are no more revelations to be had; Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts have never been particularly keen on introspection anyway. Or perhaps Scorsese just figured, “Why bother?” and mainly wanted to share with us the sensation of seeing the Stones live.
Apparently, he wasn’t after any juicy, raw or candid moments, because they don’t exist in his film; the lone source of tension comes at the beginning, when Scorsese is scrambling to procure a set list from the elusive Jagger to prepare the movie’s first shots. Scorsese is his fast-talking, analytical self and Jagger is charmingly blase as ever, and we all get a good laugh out of it.
They do still put on a tremendous show, after all, and “Shine a Light” derives much of its warmth and energy from the intimacy of its setting: New York’s Beacon Theatre, over two nights in fall 2006. (One of the performances was a birthday benefit for Bill Clinton, speaking of men who can whip a crowd up into a frenzy.) And the fact that it was shot by a team of cinematographers who are the rock stars of their own craft makes “Shine a Light” feel like the world’s most gorgeous infomercial.
Besides director of photography Robert Richardson, an Oscar winner for Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” camera operators include Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”), John Toll (“Braveheart”), Ellen Kuras (“Neil Young: Heart of Gold”) and Emmanuel Lubezki (“Children of Men”). Even 81-year-old Albert Maysles helped out with his high-definition camera. And so you can see every nook and cranny on Richards’ weathered face, the sharp curvature of the hipbones on Jagger’s lean frame — the lighting is so crisp and yet so flattering, it makes the ravages of a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle look beautiful.
The Stones get some help on various duets from a star-struck Jack White, a cool Buddy Guy (on the Muddy Waters tune “Champagne and Reefer”) and Christina Aguilera, who initially seems like an odd choice, but she does match Jagger with her on-stage dynamism. About an hour in, the thrill is gone.
But to break up chunks of performance, Scorsese has interspersed old interviews with the band members. It becomes a running joke: Invariably, some reporter asks fresh-faced, young Jagger some inane question about how long the group can keep this up.
By now we know the answer to that. Clearly, this wasn’t the Rolling Stones’ last waltz — this wasn’t even the penultimate waltz. Not by a long shot.