I wonder what Pauline Kael would say about Shine A Light. She lambasted Gimme Shelter, saying that the entire event had been staged for the cameras. In 1970 she asked, “if events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone? Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema?” Since the only thing dying in Shine A Light is a piece of your memory for the subversive, pure Rolling Stones of Kael’s era, it probably doesn’t matter.
(I’m leaving out discussion of the accidental injury to Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, who fell backstage and sustained head injuries that led to a coma and death, just like Scorsese does.)
In point of fact, this film has little pretension to being a documentary. It’s a long, loud concert that captures the Rolling Stones over two nights at the gorgeous Beacon theater in Manhattan. If the set list isn’t as wide-ranging as you’d expect, neither is it loaded with clunkers from recent records. The most recent track is 1983’s ‘She Was Hot’. Otherwise, it’s mostly prime Glimmer Twins era stuff from Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed and Exile On Main St., with a surprising handful of tracks from Some Girls thrown in for good measure.
(I was thrilled to see and hear the jokey western ‘Far Away Eyes’, but less impressed by Mick’s self-censorship in ‘Some Girls’. You won’t hear black girls just want to get fucked all night / I ain’t got that much jam. The Stones never treated Robert Frank like this.)
I detect some embarrassment on Scorsese’s part for the lack of depth. The opening is a an amusing set of one-sided conversations between Scorsese and producers and management and the Stones and management, but never Scorsese and the Stones. The sequence is illustrative of just what a rigmarole it must be to mount a production with a band like the Rolling Stones, but it also reads like Scorsese’s apology to the audience. “Sorry guys, but you see what I had to work with here.”
When the cameras are on the band, the result is certainly beautiful. I saw the Imax presentation and once I got over trying to look for lost rock climbers in the canyon-littered faces of Jagger, Richards and Ron Wood, I was fairly entranced by the footage. Scorsese and editor David Tedeschi know when to cut back to a wide shot that offers a grand view of the band’s interplay. I cackled when I caught Ron Wood mouthing “I forgot the fucking chords!” during one song, and I thank Scorsese and Tedeschi for allowing me to see it.
The downside there is that you’re also bound to see all the cynicism in Mick Jagger’s performance. ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and ‘Shattered’, the two opening tracks, are particularly painful. Jagger twists and prances in ways that appear purely calculated; you can almost hear the machine in his head tallying up how much louder the applause should be after each move.
There’ no such cynicism on the part of Richards and Wood, however. Richards in particular is a joy as he plays from some deep place unmarked by decades in the spotlight. You never saw him roam the stage like this in the old days, interacting with everyone equally and always looking like he means it. Too bad he’s a poorer guitarist than ever before. Richards was once a killer riffsman and has always been a premiere songwriter and arranger, but his technical skills, never topping any list of the world’s best, have deteriorated noticeably. He gets away with anything on stage because he’s Keith Fucking Richards, but Shine A Light casts perhaps too much illumination on the state of his playing.
There’s a big chunk of film in the middle (before Christina Aguilera arrives to mangle ‘Live With Me’) where everything clicks. Jagger drops some of his self-awareness and starts to look like a shadow of his old self, the band finds a groove and ‘Just My Imagination’ and ‘Tumbling Dice’ emerge more or less unscathed.
The film’s high point is in here, when Buddy Guy takes the stage to perform Muddy Waters’ standard ‘Champagne and Reefer’. You might not realize you came to see Buddy Guy, but that’s the way it is. The man is a monster; there’s one shot where he stares into the camera for five or ten straight seconds and I thought he might be trying to kill me, telepathically. He’s a force of nature and a massive, massive guitarist. The movie comes screaming to life around him.
And then it’s over with 40 minutes yet to go. Richards sings a couple of tracks (‘You Got The Silver’ and ‘Connection’) but even Scorsese seems to lose interest here, cutting back to interview footage. Things go downhill to a purely perfunctory ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ and Aguilera’s appearance.
If anything, this is a documentary about seeing large musical acts in the ’00s. On one of the two documented nights, the Stones are playing for the entire Clinton clan, and the band kowtowing to politicians and their families during the meet and greet is pathetic.
On both nights the audience facing the band is a far cry from the stoned, tharn kids you see in Gimme Shelter. The front rows are packed with pretty, anorexic Manhattanites. As the band plays, two girls at the front take their own picture, presumably to be emailed out to friends hours later. The back of the hall is full of old guys in khaki and shirts from the Steel Wheels tour. Some of those guys were at my screening, too, wearing shirts proving they’d paid a lot for a concert ticket, but unable to recognize lyrics to ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ during the pre-show trivia test.
Some will say the overall scene makes a grand statement about where rock and roll is now, but I don’t believe it. Shine A Light reflects only where the Stones are now: in their own twilight zone where fans that fed them with power have grown into adults that no longer care, where going through the motions is the shortest route to feeling like three decades haven’t gone by.