Rarely do movies change my mind about anything, rarer still about rock 'n' roll, but Shine A Light did just that.
I’m a Beatles guy. We should just get that out of the way right now. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Stones. Just that when the conversation turns, as it inevitably does, to that of the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band of All Time, I unhesitatingly, unfailingly answer “the Beatles”.
When it comes to the Beatles, I can match albums to years, songs to albums, and composers to songs. I followed their solo careers (OK, not Ringo’s), and I picked up the supplemental releases, the Anthologies, the Live at the BBC’s. Revolver is a perpetual go-to album, as is Rubber Soul. I bought Let It Be…Naked at Best Buy on the day of its release.
When it comes to the Stones, I have Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers on my iPod, both filched rather than got honestly, but what self-respecting rock 'n' roller doesn’t have these two records? Exile is good, I guess (I do like the opening one-two punch of “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint”), but I prefer Liz Phair’s response. As for Sticky Fingers, I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through, in large part because I can’t stand “Wild Horses”.
Concerning the rest of their catalogue, I do like “Street Fighting Man” and “Shattered”, but ask me what albums they appear on I’ll tell you Hot Rocks 1964-1971 and Forty Licks, respectively. I guess you could say that I’m a Greatest Hits Stones fan, but I just looked at the track listing for More Hot Rocks, and I don’t know a single tune, so I’m not even sure that holds.
Not that they care two shakes of Mick’s hips what I think of them—they seem to be doing just fine without me—but for what it’s worth the Stones are in good company: I don’t much care for Zeppelin, the Who, Hendrix, or Clapton, either. What can I say? I like pop; I don’t like the blues. Give me Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” over a wicked lick any day (I’m talking to you, John Mayer).
But I’ll work through my Classic Rock issues some other time. The subject at hand is the Rolling Stones, specifically the Rolling Stones and the DVD release of their concert film Shine A Light, a movie directed by Martin Scorsese and, not incidentally, shot by a team of Academy Award™-nominated (and in some cases -winning) cinematographers. And, believe it or not, I come to praise the Rolling Stones, not to bury them, for Shine A Light is a great film, on par with Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, which is to say that it is a classic of the genre.
I won’t go so far as to say that it should be required viewing for rock 'n' rollers everywhere, but I will say that rock 'n' rollers everywhere will appreciate the movie, whether they can name the original album for each track or not. And this from a Beatles guy.
In his review of Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband (2005), Roger Ebert says of this loose sequel to Scenes from a Marriage (1973) that it was only possible because Liv Ullman, the radiant star of both films, “did not allow a surgeon to give her a face yearning for its younger form.” “She wore her age as proof of having lived,” he writes. “As we all must.”
Few would argue that the Rolling Stones have not lived, but for those who doubt the legends, the proof, as Ebert suggests, is indeed etched on those faces, particularly in those lines that are deep enough to be measured by a ruler, the ones that enclose Jagger’s mouth like parentheses.
The movie’s present is New York City’s Beacon Theater in the fall of 2006, but Scorsese consistently interrupts this present with the past by way of archival footage of newsreels and interviews with the band from the early '60 on through the present day. Reporters have been asking Mick, Keith, Ron, and Charlie some variation of “How long do you expect to be doing this?” for the past 40 years, yet watching them concoct new responses that are just as effective as the old isn’t nearly as interesting as watching those wrinkles develop. The interspersed interviews function as a kind of time-elapsed photography, from the peach fuzz of yesteryear to the tree bark of today.
The wrinkles take on such a life of their own that in some instances they, themselves, carry the day. For example, the performance of “As Tears Go By”, a song the band readily admits they were “slightly embarrassed by” when they first wrote it, is one of the few clunkers of the set; however, the way the camera slowly pushes in, getting ever closer and closer to Jagger’s grizzled face, the vein in his neck straining with the note—the life in his face alone makes this snoozer of a song riveting.
Of course, the success of any concert movie is largely predicated upon the quality of the music, but Shine A Light is a noteworthy instance in which the visual elements are just as impressive as the aural. Consider: In addition to those aforementioned classic Stones albums, I also have the movie’s soundtrack on my iPod (also filched from a Stones-loving friend). I carry it with me everyday. I could listen to it on the train in the morning as I go to work. I could listen to it on my afternoon walk as I get away from work. I could listen to it as I cook, as I do the dishes. Basically, I could listen to it any time I want without impeding the normal rhythms of my day in any way, yet I still haven’t done so, and, furthermore, I don’t foresee myself doing so anytime soon.
However, I have twice now anchored myself to a chair or a couch to watch the movie in its entirety, and I’ve revisited several of the songs on the DVD up to three times more. In other words, I have little interest in the songs as songs, even going so far as to reject them when they are literally handed to me; but I seek out, I crave (that isn’t too strong a word) the songs as performance.
I suspect this has something to do with that previously mentioned crack team of highly decorated cinematographers (ten of them, to be exact). I won’t pretend to appreciate the art of cinematography well enough to break this down, so in lieu of actual analysis I’ll simply say that each frame of the film is a pleasure to watch: the crispness of the images, the contrasts of the colors, the definition of the wrinkles (the wrinkles again, yes), the way in which both the foreground and the background appear to be in such sharp focus. It’s just compulsively watchable. Certain shots—Richards striking a pose while soloing, captured from behind; Jagger prancing from a point of view that appears to be that of Charlie Watts’ shoulder—these shots are so stunning, so hyper-real that you have to remind yourself that they are not processed.
Another byproduct of having so many cameras on hand (you can see them swinging around during the show) is that they capture moments and exchanges between the members of band that would otherwise be lost. The word “intimate” is often applied to the Beacon. It’s a relative term, to be sure, one with which the fans seated in the upper balcony of this 2,800-seat theater would surely quibble, but one that is apropos here, nonetheless.
With the exception of a moment during the band introductions when he confuses who is from Brooklyn and who is from Queens, Jagger maintains the rock 'n' roll façade throughout. He’ll be damned if he’s going to acknowledge that camera, even if it does appear to be only inches from his nose. But the rest of the band make friends with the cameras—Watts even going so far as to look one in the eye as he mops his brow—and they don’t shy away from those intimate moments that the cameras clearly seek: Richards resting his arm on Woods’ shoulder, sharing a laugh with his band-mate, or, my personal favorite, insisting “It’s yours” as he hands special guest Buddy Guy his guitar. There was a point at the end of “Satisfaction” when the camera holds on Richards, post-solo, spent and on his knees, that made me wonder about the difference between intimacy and invasiveness, but, thankfully, the thought was fleeting.
The set list, a major subject of the movie’s first ten minutes, includes a little something for everyone. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Start Me Up”, and “Brown Sugar” all represent. “Sympathy for the Devil” gets points for showing up, though ultimately it disappoints, if only because it’s impossible to improve upon the original. A foray into country, “Faraway Eyes”, entertains in a novelty kind of way. And then there’s “She Was Hot”.
Upon the movie’s theatrical release, reviewers fell over themselves in an effort to see who could praise “She Was Hot” more. The song, they all said, was a relative obscurity suddenly come to life in this live version. Since I did not hear the original first, I’ll forego a comparison, but I will say that the accolades could have been ten times greater and still just as earned. Jagger’s interaction with the back-up singers alone here is worth your rental. He manages to resists his patented rooster preening throughout the show, but when he turns his back to the audience and engages in a virtual mating dance with one of the accompanists, there is no doubt who is the cock of the walk. “She Was Hot” is a genuine showstopper, and it’s only three songs in.
On the other side of this spectrum but just as noteworthy are the two songs that Richards is allowed to croon: “You Got the Silver,” from Let It Bleed, and “Connections,” from Richards’ solo album, Love Without Mercy. I confess that I was initially tempted to take a cheap shot at an easy target and say something like: “The movie replicates an actual Stones concert so realistically that it even includes two songs by Keith Richards to give you time to make a beer run”. But that didn’t feel fair, and once I got past what strikes me as, fairly or not, Richards’ self-caricaturization, I realized his are the two prettiest songs of the night.
We often describe a singer’s voice as being “honest” or as having “character” when we really mean “bad”, but Richards’ vocals can be defined as “honest” in a way that is closer to “unaffected” (where does Jagger get that twang from, anyway?). Think Sid Vicious, only with more talent in one of his eyelashes. The second song, “Connections”, is particularly lovely, with Richards sounding more hound dog than rock star (“All I want to do-ooo / Is get back to you-ooo”). Unfortunately, Scorsese doesn’t trust his audience enough to think that we’ll stick with him through two full Mick-less songs, so he interrupts the second with contemporary interviews with Richards and Woods. “Were you guys really that wild? Who is the better guitar player?” That kind of thing. Scorsese should know better. This is not a Tom Tom Club situation, to hearken back to Demme’s one misstep in that near masterpiece. Shine A Light incorporates rock, pop, blues, boogie, country, and soul. Scorsese should have realized that all Richards was doing was adding a little punk to the mix, as well.
Unfortunately, the best part of the extras is the preview for American Teen, which I watched three times. The so-called “Special Features” are otherwise scant. There’s a 15-minute “Featurette” that captures the band in candid moments, but it’s not too unlike the ten-minute prelude to the concert that begins the movie’s final cut. With its lack of credits, commentary, or through-line, the featurette would have made a ballsier opening to the film, but it is otherwise of little interest.
The deleted scenes (in this case four songs) continue a long line of deleted scenes that prove why they were deleted in the first place. Completists will want to run through them all, but the only one that really deserves your time is “Paint It Black”, and that simply by virtue of being “Paint It Black”. There’s certainly nothing here to warrant the $34.99 retail price, though it’s worth noting that this is something like $965 off the price of the original concert (and you have a better seat to boot).
Still. Rarely do movies change my mind about anything, and rarer still do they change my mind about something as important as rock 'n' roll. But Shine A Light did just that. Don’t get me wrong. Album for album, I’ll still take the Beatles, and I’ll be amazed if a solo album by a member of the Stones ever crashes my music library. But ask me now about the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band of All Time, and I will unhesitatingly, unfailingly answer “the Rolling Stones”. What’s more, it’s not even close.