Martin Scorsese shines the light on the Rolling Stones

[4 April 2008]

By John Anderson

Newsday (MCT)

As a pre-adolescent Keith Richards wannabe, this writer saw the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden, the day after Thanksgiving, 1969. A legendary show. “Monkey Man,” “Love in Vain.” “Satisfaction.” And a tour that would soon be defined by that fatal incident at Altamont.

A bit later, this same spectator caught up with Jagger and Company at Shea Stadium for the “Steel Wheels” extravaganza. “How long has it been?” we asked ourselves casually. The answer was bloodcurdling. Unspeakable.

Twenty years. Two decades. High school. College. Marriage. Two children. And, unlike Mick Jagger, several pants sizes.

Well, another quick 20 slip by, and now the beleaguered mortal is confronted by Martin Scorsese’s new concert documentary “Shine a Light,” opening Friday, in which the most durable millionaire rock band turns on the juice, churns out the hits and turns on a crowd ripe for their charms. As the movie makes immediately clear, the Stones have not exactly been preserved in aspic (Keith Richards looks like he’s preserved in wet newspaper and nicotine). But neither have they slowed the pace.

“Not at all,” said filmmaker Albert Maysles, who, with his brother, David, made “Gimme Shelter,” the definitive record of the `69 tour. “And I appreciate it, `cause I’m pretty well along in age myself. Even older than they are.”

Maysles, 81, was among the 19 cameramen Scorsese brought into Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre on the evenings of Oct. 29 and Nov. 1, 2006, to shoot a concert rich in energy and spontaneity - and an unpredictability that infected the shoot itself. In “Shine a Light’s” opening, pre-musical moments, the viewer watches Scorsese scrambling desperately to obtain the show’s set list, so he knows which song will open the performance. Although played for comic effect, it all seems very real.

“Let me put it this way, it might as well have been,” the director said by phone from the set of his newest, “Shutter Island.” “That’s the way I felt. But the humor of it is, that’s the nature of the situation. If you want to capture something that is so spontaneous, you have to walk that tightrope.”

It started out with Scorsese intending to film an epic Stones concert in Rio de Janeiro, with 50 cameras and a million people on the beach. “And I realized 50 cameras? What am I gonna do with 50 cameras? ... I thought about it, I was planning it, but in the planning of it, I thought maybe it would be better to do something in a smaller venue, and really capture them onstage.”

The relatively intimate Beacon, with the addition of several dollies and an overhanging camera crane, is shrunk to virtually club size in “Shine a Light.” And the audience - largely invitees and insiders attending in support of the Clinton Foundation (Bill Clinton does the onstage introductions) - is an enthusiastic lot, if a bit homogeneous.

“The second night was the night we used,” Scorsese said. “At one point, Mick says, `You’ve been a great audience’ and he really meant that. Not that the first audience was a bad audience, but a different audience. And I think they feed off the energy. You can’t do what they do in a vacuum.”

What they do is what they usually do - a virtual greatest- hits package (although they have too many “greatest hits” to fit into a single performance) with Jagger, 64, gyrating; drummer Charlie Watts, 66, anchoring the rhythm section; Ronnie Wood, 60, supplying slide guitar; and Keith Richards, 64 - who cannot be killed by conventional weapons, as “Wayne’s World” so eloquently put it - playing some of the better-known riffs in the lexicon of rock guitar.

As each Scorsese film does, “Shine a Light” finds its fractured hero, and finds it in Richards, whose career-long abuse of himself has become one of rock’s longer-running jokes. But there’s something tragic in it, too, especially as captured by director of photography Bob Richardson and choreographed by Scorsese. Richards’ solo turn, a vocal on “You Got the Silver,” a song from the “Let It Bleed” album, is beautifully awful, like a portrait by Francis Bacon. You imagine what “Sweeney Todd” might have been, with Richards in the lead. When the show ends, the film finds the guitarist kneeling, the Christ metaphor completed by the neck of the Gibson cradled on Richards’ neck.

“But he resurrects,” Scorsese says with a laugh. “He comes up and suddenly takes a bow. It’s like the band itself, taking a deep breath, catching their breath after all those years, and coming back up.”

Scorsese has done rock before: “The Last Waltz,” his near-legendary account of The Band’s final concert in 1976, set a standard for music documentaries.

“`The Last Waltz’ was a very constructed concert by (Band guitarist Robbie) Robertson,” Scorsese said. “I really didn’t know Robbie until I met him for `The Last Waltz.’ I loved The Band’s music, it’s affected me very strongly. But I’m a very urban person, and I was never able to use their music in one of my ways the way I’ve used the Stones’ music. That doesn’t mean their music isn’t part of my life every day; I hear it in my head, in my subconscious. But in the case of `The Last Waltz,’ we were able to construct a concert. They move less, number one. They’re more in stable positions, and Robertson was able to work it out. So we had more control, literally, over the songs in the concert and the positioning of the people onstage. But they’re very different kinds of bands.”

They are: While “The Last Waltz” was choreography, “Shine a Light” seems to have been more like controlled chaos.

“I got a call the day before from Marty,” Maysles said. “And he said, `Look, we’re going to be filming the Rolling Stones at the Beacon Theatre tomorrow, and we have 18 35mm cameras, but it would be great if you came with your high-definition video camera and shoot whatever interested you. Plus, both Keith and Mick have asked you to come.’ I loved working with Marty, anyway, so that was great.”

He said the show, as opposed to what he and his late brother had shot in `69, involves much more preparation, more lighting - just a much bigger production. Which made Scorsese’s pursuit of that set list all the more critical.

He and his crew knew basically what songs the Stones would play, but the opener was crucial, Scorsese said. “That was a practical issue because we were shooting 35mm and there are 10-minute loads in the cameras, and I wanted all three of the first songs complete. It’s the actual reason why in the film we’re discussing the set list - not just where people were going to be on the stage, but how long the songs are going to be, `cause we had to know.” Because they couldn’t load cameras and still capture those songs.

“Ultimately,” Scorsese said, “I don’t even remember how we settled it, but ... at some point the list was purloined. It felt like 20 minutes before the show, quite honestly, because things were moving so fast.”

He got all of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Shattered” and “She Was Hot.” But it had been a gamble.

“Everything’s a gamble,” said the director. “And when you gamble like that, you can’t complain about it. It’s like, `What did you expect?”“

Published at: