Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese is knee-deep in his new film, an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s thriller “Shutter Island” starring Leonard DiCaprio and Ben Kingsley, among others. And he’s stumped. Just a little.
“This new movie is set in 1954,” he says in comic exasperation. “No Rolling Stones!”
Fans of the filmmaker will understand his consternation. Long before directing the new Rolling Stones concert documentary, “Shine a Light,” which opens April 4, Martin Scorsese was associated with their music.
“In my formative years, before I made `Mean Streets’ (1973) even, the Rolling Stones created a well of inspiration that became a part of my consciousness,” Scorsese says from his New York office. “Their music shapes the images I see when I’m planning a movie - camera movements, lighting, tone, attitude.
“What they say in their songs has really affected the attitude that turns up in characters in my movies over the years. So they’ve been something that’s fundamental to the films I make.”
He took that inspiration and often built the soundtrack to a film around it. He has long been known for using Stones tunes in the scores to his non-period-piece films. You can look it up. It’s right there under “trivia” in the Scorsese entry on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com). From “Mean Streets” to “The Departed,” Stones tunes pepper the scores. There’s one song that he’s used so often, in so many films, that it’s become a punch line.
“We’re doing a press conference for `Shine a Light’ in Berlin and Mick Jagger said, `I wanna say here that Shine a Light is the only film that Martin Scorsese has not used `Gimme Shelter’ in.”
Scorsese laughs. Mention that you can hear the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” in the trailer to the new Robert DeNiro-Al Pacino thriller “Righteous Kill” - a movie Scorsese had nothing to do with - and he laughs some more. “I know. How did that happen? It’s not my picture!”
Scorsese, 65, has long been his film generation’s “critical darling,” notes Marc Raymond on the online journal Senses of Cinema. With films such as “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” acknowledged as among the greatest ever by the American Film Institute, the influential Sight and Sound magazine and pretty much everyone else, his Oscar for “The Departed” wasn’t just overdue. It was superfluous.
Music has been an important corner of that storied career. Scorsese made not only the failed musical” New York, New York” but the seminal concert film “The Last Waltz,” about the final concert of The Band, as well as definitive TV documentaries on the blues and Bob Dylan.
“The first time I remember visualizing music was when I was 4 years old, listening to my father’s Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club of France 78s,” he says.
By the time Scorsese went to the NYU Film School in the mid-60s, the Stones had taken over his musical fantasies. His breakthrough film, “Mean Streets,” featured not only an undiscovered director and a couple of undiscovered stars (DeNiro and Harvey Keitel). “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Tell Me” were on the soundtrack.
So naturally the director felt a little invested in what tunes the Stones would play for “Shine a Light,” which was shot at a benefit concert for the Clinton Foundation in New York in 2006.
“There were a few songs I just had to hear in the film - `Sympathy for the Devil’ and `Jumping Jack Flash,’ key songs,” Scorsese says. “But the band had other ideas. They had a way of looking at the flow of the concert, the tone, what it would start with, what it would end with, when ballads would be heard, when the blues would come in, when country music would come in and that sort of thing.
“That makes what they do a two-hour piece of music, from start to end, that they determine just by arranging the songs and picking the songs they would do.”
In “Shine a Light,” Scorsese is the “harassed, exasperated filmmaker” trying to wrangle out of the band a set list of the songs the Stones would play in the order they would play them.
“I’m Edgar Kennedy in the Laurel & Hardy pictures. I’m the straight man, the `master of the slow burn,’” Scorsese says with a chuckle. “The more exasperated I got, the more of that we got on film, the more fun we had with it in the cutting.
“But it’s quite real. The only thing to do with it is have fun with that exasperation. Otherwise, why make the movie? I realized how absurd this is - trying to capture something that’s so spontaneous. You can’t restrict the spontaneity. But you’ve got to put the camera in certain places. That’s what I’m worried about.
“Everything goes wrong, but what’s really happening is, everything is going as planned. By them!”
He wanted to hear “Jumping Jack Flash” and “As Tears Go By,” and Mick and the lads obliged. But Scorsese shot “Shine a Light” on film, which meant he had to back up each of five cameras with two others in the same spot, in reserve, for when the film magazine’s 10 minutes of footage was spent. And all that planning didn’t prepare him for what he actually saw on stage.
“Their passion surprised me,” the 65 year-old director says of Jagger, Richards, Wood and Watts, his sixtysomething contemporaries in the band. “I mean, they’ve been doing this forever. By the time they hit `She Was Hot,’ the third number, something happened ... Mick’s dancing has something to do with that, but the back-up singers, the guitar solos, the percussion, somehow, on that third song, the machine of the concert is ratcheted up.”
The reviews for “Shine a Light” aren’t going to be Scorsese’s best, because it is, as Kirk Honeycutt noted in The Hollywood Reporter, “another in a long line of Rolling Stone concert films.” The director got to hang out and do a little business with his favorite band, capture them in their ageless glory, and that’s enough.
But it isn’t helping him with his problem, that director’s block facing him as “Shutter Island” goes before the cameras.
“I have some classical music in mind for this one. There’s also popular music of the early `50s that can find its way into the picture that would help me out.
“But you know, it’s pre-rock `n’ roll,” he says, as if still mystified. “Pre-Rolling Stones. So I don’t know, it’s tough.”