Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega if he’s a Beatles Man or an Elvis Man? There is a large population out there who would answer this question with a third response: Stones Man.
The Rolling Stones have long been considered one of the best rock and roll groups in the history of, well, rock and roll. Sure it’s music is pop at times but at its core the Stones is a true rock and roll band in the pure sense of the term. Its music has always been rooted in rhythm and blues, propelled by hard hitting guitar riffs, powerful yet concise drumming, and a lead singer’s on stage theatrics that, no matter how ridiculous they may seem, never fail to capture the groove of the music.
The Stones have had their share of critical highs and lows–for every masterpiece in the repertoire (and there are quite a few) there is undoubtedly a dud filler album, primarily from the early 80s to present day. In the past decade or so the vocals have been hindered by their age (and in the case of Keith a lifetime of cigarettes and all things bad for you) but all these grievances aside the Stones still know how to rock. On stage, as a whole entity their sound still remains unprecedented.
Shine a Light is by no means the greatest concert film ever made nor was this Scorsese’s goal for the film (one could argue that the director mastered this feat with the immortal classic, The Last Waltz). The film is not a historical documentary of one of the biggest bands in the world nor does it chronicle any specific part of its career similar to Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home. Shine a Light sets out to do one thing–showcasing a band doing what they’ve always done best.
The concert at the Beacon Theater in New York, which Scorsese captures in the film, is hardly unique or as truly memorable as say the Altamont disaster, that tragic show that was dissected in the must-see Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme Shelter. Shine a Light was filmed over a two-night performance during the bands Bigger Bang Tour, backing the less than memorable recent record of the same name.
Sure the Presidential Clinton family was present for the final night’s gala. The show featured three successful guest performances from Jack White (“Loving Cup”), Buddy Guy (the heavy Muddy Waters cover, “Champagne and Reefer”) and a surprisingly soulful Christina Aguilera (seriously if you ignore her pointless pop albums and celebrity stardom this singer actually has some stellar pipes on her. Then again she was born during one of the Stones’ many dull periods) lending her talent to the Let it Bleed classic “Live With Me.” These moments seem like nothing more than added bonuses when really the concert plays out as nothing more than a document of a band that has been doing their thing for over forty years, and somehow continues to do it well.
While primarily focusing on the Beacon concert Scorsese chops up the concert’s setlist with career spanning footage of the band, everything from TV interviews to early stage performances. Through the sparse but enlightening grainy reels from the band’s past Scorsese manages to tell the story of not only who these musicians are but also what continues to drive the members to perform well into their AARP years.The three original members–the mad man leader of the pack Mick Jagger, space cadet and guitar riff master Keith Richards, and the mysterious backbone drummer Charlie Watts–are each given a spotlight. We see the group’s rather innocent early days, their God like rise to stardom, and a little bit of the 80s aftermath (the funniest clip taken from what appears to be a Japanese TV interview featuring a giggly and possibly inebriated Jagger).
There is a specific moment in the film when Scorsese slips in an amazingly true to life comment from Keith that truly sums up what the Stones represent. When asked who is the better guitar player, Keith or Ronnie Wood, Richards jokingly replies something along the lines of, “well the fact is neither of us are any good but when we play together we’re better than the rest.
In my mind this sums up what Scorsese set out to do with Shine a Light. Critics and fans may complain that this film is 30 years to late and that the Stones have been out of its prime for a long time (the band’s last truly standout record was 1981s Tattoo You, the last masterpiece was ‘78s Some Girls, which gets its dues in the film’s set list). Scorsese no doubt realizes this but he also knows that despite the bands faults the Stones still remain an untouchable force in rock and roll. Shine a Light is about ignoring that band’s shortcomings and simply having a good time.
There is a reason the film was catered to fit the larger than life IMAX experience, the filming required multiple cameras or that the surround sound mixing was obviously handled with care. Scorsese uses Shine a Light to recreate what its like to be there with Mick and the gang as they rip through an entire career worth of classic sing-a-long rock and roll anthems (whatever band can write a song about a slave trader’s sexual desires as heard in “Brown Sugar” and turn it into a classic that everyone knows). The film shows that that despite the waning vocals, the group’s physical appearance (skeletal remains with baseball glove weathered skin), and the nonsensical ramblings of Mr. Richards who himself is surprised to have survived this long, these veteran rockers still know how to let it loose.