It’s only fair to tell you up front that I saw Shine A Light in
a screening room full of critics, which means that nary a head bobbed
and not a foot tapped throughout the concert film. I say that because
it’s possible that some of my reaction to the movie was shaped by being
in a dead room, and that someone who goes to see the film this weekend
with a crowd of Stones fans will have a more energized experience.

Sometimes life is funny in that it does things you wouldn’t even believe in a movie. Gimme Shelter,
the documentary about the doomed Altamont Concert, is famous for
capturing a man being stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels during the
Rolling Stones’ set. Decades later the Stones are again being filmed,
and again someone  fatally injured – but instead of a sudden,
drug-fueled bout of violence, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic
Records, fell down and hit his head and went into a coma. Director
Martin Scorsese opts to leave Ertegun out of the film except for a
dedication at the end, but surely he had to look at that moment and
realize how much times have changed.

If the Stones are miles away from Gimme Shelter, director Martin Scorsese is light years away from The Last Waltz, the greatest concert film ever made. With The Last Waltz
Scorsese had a narrative – The Band was giving their goodbye concert,
and that conceit allowed Scorsese to create structure. Here there’s
nothing. This isn’t even a real Rolling Stones concert – it was put
together because Scorsese wanted to shoot the Stones in an intimate
venue. Scorsese makes an attempt to use himself as the counterpoint to
the Stones, making his neurotic New Yorker personality clash with the
free wheeling touring band, but that doesn’t offer much to hang a movie
on. And besides, who believes that? Mick Jagger makes a show out of
telling Marty that they won’t know the setlist until an hour before
they hit the stage, but when you’re a massive arena band like the
Stones you’re being much more organized than Jagger lets on. Those
effects and lighting tricks and moving stage parts don’t all just
happen on the fly – they’re tightly planned and rehearsed.

Planned and rehearsed is a perfect segue into talking about Mick
Jagger. Jagger is doing the same moves he’s been doing for decades; he
knows what people in the audience expect from him and he dutifully
gives it to them. Seeing Jagger’s mechanical performance juxtaposed
against the Stones’ guitarists, Keith Richards and Ron Wood, makes it
all the more glaringly obvious. Richards and Wood have fun; there’s an
energy between them that is never there with Mick. Even Charlie Watts,
the most reluctant Stone of all, seems to be feeling the moment more
than Mick does. It’s all right there on the screen – armed with a dozen
cameras and the best operators in the business (we’re talking guys
you’d be lucky to get as the DP of your film), Scorsese captures the
smallest details of the band. While Watts is surrounded by plexiglass
(for sound) you’d think it was Jagger separated from his bandmates.

To be fair, I’m a little cranky about all this. I don’t like Mick
Jagger anymore, it seems, and the longer the film went on the less I
liked him. His sexual pantomimes don’t so much disgust me as make me
feel sad; Christina Aguilera comes out for a duet and when he grinds
against her ass at one point she has a look on her face that could be
worn at a wedding reception when Korean War vet Uncle Ernie has a few
too many and gets lewd with the young ladies.

I’m also cranky about the place of the Stones in rock today. Scorsese
opens the film with behind the scenes footage as everybody prepares for
the concert, which happens to be on Bill Clinton’s birthday and is a
benefit for his foundation. Friends of Bill show up to get pictures
taken with the Stones, and they bring their little kids with them. The
group photo has to wait until Hillary’s ancient mom shows up. Watching
Keith Richards paraded around like a man in a character costume as
Disneyland I found myself realizing how fucking lame this group has
become. Is there anything less rock and roll than being introduced by
the president of the United States? I’ve been reading Please Kill Me,
a history of punk rock, and watching these rich old men play to a crowd
of rich people who barely move during songs, let alone dance, really
helped crystallize just what it was that the kids wearing safety pins
in 1978 were rebelling against. This isn’t rock and roll – this is a
very loud Lawrence Welk performance.

There’s no faulting the Stones as a band, though. They play the songs
well, and the film features many of the favorites. Thankfully there are no songs from the last few albums; the Stones
have continued since the end of the 70s without recording a single good
song, let alone an album worth buying. Listening to new songs is
amazing as you know that you’re listening to music that is technically
well written and well performed but that you will be unable to so much
as hum in twelve minutes.

There are a couple of moments that shine. Jack White, of the White
Stripes, joins the Stones for a song and his excitement is palpable
(although like Wood and Richards his energy only serves to highlight
the stiffness of the Tick Tock Man of Main Street), and a Buddy Guy
appearance seems to up the general energy level of the whole band. But
despite some good moments, and despite a collection of some of the best
rock songs ever written, I kept hoping the next song would be the last
number. Short of that I kept hoping for a little more depth; Scorsese
has not followed the format of The Last Waltz with
the talking heads, but he has added in some old news footage and
interviews with the Stones as thematic counterpoints. He uses these
bits cleverly, and I would have liked more of that – I wanted to see
more of the band as it was compared with how it is, with the young Stones offering commentary. That could have
been the narrative Scorsese needed to give the film cohesion, but he
doesn’t go all the way with it.

I love the music of the Rolling Stones*, but fond memories of the tracks weren’t enough to get me through Shine A Light – especially as so many of those songs have new connotations; Start Me Up, now a software commercial, comes in ironic proximity to Satisfaction,
a song where Jagger decries advertising. The Rolling Stones are a band
that hasn’t figured out how to properly become old man musicians but
that also hasn’t figured out how to just stop. It’s sort of boring to
complain about old men rocking, but the Stones’ early catalog is
completely young man music. Having old men up on stage singing these
songs about rebellion and fighting and fucking is strange at best. I
wish I understood why it is that blues guys can get old and decrepit
and still have the magic but rock bands can’t.

6 out of 10

*I reject the concept that one must choose between the
Stones and the Beatles. I mean, you probably have to like one more than
the other, but you can love both of them a whole lot.