Who, exactly, are the Rolling Stones circa 2008? Considering that it’s been 45 plus years since Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Brian Jones played ballsy blues badboys to the Beatles scrubbed and sanitized pop laureates, one has to challenge where a group of aging 60+ year olds fit within the modern mainstream music scheme. Granted, they are legends, myths making noise long after many thought them relevant. True, it takes an intense amount of chutzpah to step on stage and endlessly recreate your greatest hits from three decades past while hoping to work in a few of your current composition. It’s a concept that’s bested other icons - David Bowie, for one - and yet the artists formerly known as the greatest rock and roll band of all time continue to soldier on.
So when it was announced that Martin Scorsese, the moviemaking mind behind such monumental aural efforts as The Last Waltz and No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, was planning on capturing the Stones on their latest tour in support of their 22nd studio album A Bigger Bang, fans and film fanatics were agog. Imagine the combination - the man responsible for some of contemporary cinema’s most masterful works directing the last real remnants of the socially conscious ‘60s through a sonic discourse of their entire career. The results should be something magical indeed. But Shine a Light suffers from something akin to inadvertent over familiarity. Instead of appreciating the Stones for surviving all these years, the movie appears to mock them for hanging on for far too long.
It begins with the otherwise astonishing IMAX presentation. While the movie will be available in the regular Cineplex format, seeing Jagger and Richards in 70mm clarity is shocking to say the least. It’s like watching outtakes from Dawn of the Dead, The Musical. Both men are indeed old, and not just in human years. They suffer from that rare malady known as rock and roll ageism. For every month they’ve spent on the road, or in a recording studio, they’ve ripened several decades. For his part, Jagger is still a jocular jumping bean, pulling off the preening moves and cock jock jerkiness that made him an icon. In fact, if Shine a Light has a single saving grace, it’s this enigmatic frontman. He is energy personified, able to whip up the crowd into a frenzy with little more than his onstage presence and instantly recognizable vocals.
But as they plow through their hit heavy playlist, as they touch on all aspects of their endless time as titans, certain elements undermine the show. Richards, for example, may be a substance abusing badass, a blood changing champion of music making debauchery, but he’s an incomplete element to the overall sound. Chopping away at his guitar, barely interested in completing a signature riff, he’s lost in his own world of aural satisfaction. Since most of the audience are far too young to remember when the Stones toured America in stadium showboating events, this offhand approach seems lazy. In fact, there are many times when Richard’s random strumming ruins an otherwise incendiary classic (“Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up”).
It’s a zombie like malaise that stifles many otherwise amazing moments here. We really get into the groove of “Some Girls”, but then a bit of editorial oddness derails the experience (fans of the song will definitely understand). The band brings on some celebrity guests to fill out the evening, but only Buddy Guy delivers with his bravado blues belting on “Champagne and Reefer”. By the time we get to the encores, and the signature Stone tune “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, one actually yearns for DEVO’s deconstructionist take. Our old men are merely going through the motions, delivering what they think the audience wants while providing just enough effort to easily appease the masses.
For his part, Scorsese is stuck as documenter only. Unlike Waltz, or his amazing Dylan overview, there is little opportunity to add clarification or context to the Stones’ performance Instead, we get clichéd comic bits - interviews from 1964 addressing the band’s proposed longevity while, 44 years later, the guys are jamming away on “Tumbling Dice”. There is no mention of other band members, no recounting of the troubled history that followed their fame (we do get mention of Jagger and Richard’s run-ins with the law), or life outside the limelight. Indeed, Scorsese is striving for a Stop Making Sense kind of relevance - a movie where the music and how it is performed says everything about the artist featured.
In that regard, Shine a Light struggles. Diehards will drown in giant-sized waves of nostalgic recall, while the casual lover of the band’s output will grow restless towards the end. While the mood changing choices of country comforts like “Far Away Eyes”, or their bow to Marianne Faithful (who covered their composition “As Tear Go By”) are welcome, it’s the high energy entries that keep us engaged. Jagger is indeed the juice. Yet there is still something unsettling about the entire performance, as if part of the passion that drove these English lads to music four decades before has been lost in waves of commercialism and cash. Still, Shine a Light does deliver in a way few concert films can - especially given the timeless talents on display. It’s just too bad it’s not more illuminating. The Rolling Stones as a symbol of pop culture’s past deserve as much.