There Shouldn't Be No Law
I love the movies.
If you’re an institution, you might as well be filmed by Martin Scorsese. At least, this appears to be the thinking behind Mick Jagger’s desire to have the man direct a documentary on the Rolling Stones. But while the coming together of such Mighty Mucky Mucks has been heralded as an event, Shine a Light is only fitfully absorbing. Filmed over two nights in 2006 at New York’s Beacon Theatre, the film combines a greatest hits set list, special guest stars, and archival interview footage that underlines repeatedly what a miracle it is that these perennial bad boys are still up and running. Put together, all these pieces tell you what you already know.
Certainly, the director of No Direction Home: Bob Dylan and The Last Waltz knows how to mount a concert film, a point this one makes plain by introductory and explicatory scenes. There’s Scorsese telling his predominantly white-haired crew where to go and what to do, there he is planning camera angles and joking about setting Mick Jagger accidentally on fire. And there he is again, greeting President Clinton, whose benefit event occasions the show. As always, he’s funny, fast, and precise. The songs include, as Jagger promises, “Things that everyone likes, things that aren’t so well known, and things that work for a theater.” (The “not so well know” is a relative term, of course, as most Stones tunes are known, whether by first hand or by their resemblance to other Stones tunes.) The set-up has a payoff, in that Scorsese’s mini-panic about not having a set list until minutes before the concert begins. Apparently, this doesn’t matter so much: as Jagger is the recurrent focus, he does what you (and the filmmakers) know he will. He struts and poses and carries on, removing his dramatic jacket, revealing his little t-shirt, bending and swooping and showing everyone how spry he remains.
Jagger and especially Keith Richards, who also speaks and sings here (notably, on “You Got the Silver”), make repeated references to their age. If it’s not necessary (as their bodies and faces betray the effects of their many years of hard living on the road), it makes for jokes that are less “in” than obvious, jokes that the overwhelmingly white and upscale audience at the Beacon appreciates. As they sway and sing along, the pretty girls and middle-aging men display their familiarity with the Stones as seemingly multi-generational soundtrack, even as they are emblems of a very particular moment, however extended. The white guys playing the blues: they do it well, with a kind of well-rehearsed flair, but they are always, visibly, making such music emphatically safe (even, at some earlier time, cool) for white consumers.
Jagger’s songs run a customary range, from jaunty (“Jumping Jack Flash”) to nostalgic (“Faraway Eyes”) to his own brand of cocky (“Sympathy for the Devil”). You keep wishing that, even apart from the kitschy younger-them interview clips, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts had more to do on screen, or even appeared in more close-ups as they play. But the camera loves the alluring jumpy boys, Richards and Jagger, who remain the vibrant flashy surface of the band.
The special guests offer three particular points of revelation, shining their own kinds of light on the Stones’ strengths and weaknesses: when Jack White appears for “Loving Cup,” he and Jagger actually seem well matched, both cagey performers who know their ways around a phrase. Christina Aguilera, who performs “Live With Me,” actually helps to remind you that he’s really old, but that’s okay: she knows who she is, and she delivers to that self-image, showing off her enduringly brilliant range and stretching her verses with too many syllables.
But it’s Buddy Guy who makes his piece his own, and for an all too brief couple of minutes, carries the movie off to some other dimension. By the time he’s finished with “Champagne & Reefer” and Richards bows down and hands him his guitar, you can fully understand the gesture, though you might wonder what Guy might do with someone else’s guitar. Guy’s transformative performance also reminds you just how unfair it is that so many black artists have given so much to rock and the blues, and how few of them have seen the sorts of rewards—the adulation, the cash, the doting documentaries—that white musicians have seen.