Why The Stones Still Matter

ImageMartin Scorsese has always been a bit of a rock and roll film director. He uses pop music and good old-fashioned rock and roll with the same care and finesse as most filmmakers do with their actors. For Marty what you hear has always been as important as what you see. Fans of his films will know that one of his favorite musical muses is without a doubt The Rolling Stones, with “Gimme Shelter” serving as his own unofficial personal trademark. This past week marked the opening of Scorsese’s newest film, Shine a Light, an admirable ode, if nothing else, to the band he has always loved and reminder of why the band is still important. 

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 HomeShine 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 ShelterShine 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. 

ImageThe 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.

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The Marriage of Music and Cinema

It was recently announced that veteran American filmmaker Martin Scorsese is set to direct a documentary on the life and work of George Harrison. Music and film fans know that this will not be Mr. Scorsese’s first encounter with music documentaries. He recently chronicled Bob Dylan’s controversial “gone electric” epoch in the fascinating PBS film No Direction Home and has a new documentary, Shine A Light, about the Rolling Stones recent Bigger Bang tour slated for a winter theatrical release. Of course Marty is probably best known for his perfectly crafted music film, The Last Waltz, a documentary/concert experience chronicling the final show of The Band, which is hands down one of the finest rock music films ever made. With the currently untitled Harrison project underway it’s apparent that Scorsese, who is as much of a pop music buff as he is a film buff, is embracing the current Hollywood fad that is musical biopics and docudramas.

The chronicling of music through film via “rockumentaries,” biopics, and concert films is hardly a new trend by any means. Still it’s hard to deny that thanks to recent Oscar bait hits such as Walk the Line and Ray (both satisfactory albeit fairly formulaic if you ask me) it seems that, similar to the recent wave of “remakes,” music biopics are the new hot ticket in Hollywood.

Just look at the lineup of upcoming music related icon films coming out. Later this fall Todd Hayne’s highly anticipated avant-garde Bob Dylan film I’m Not There starring seven actors (including a role by Cate Blanchett) portraying the legendary artist hits theaters. Control, a dark British biopic of the late Joy Division front man Ian Curtis has an upcoming U.S. release date, and a Janis Joplin film, The Gospel According to Janis, (which at one point had Pink in the starring role) is slated for a 2008 release. Add these to the long list of rumored music films set for production: a Miles Davis film staring Don Cheadle, a Jimi Hendrix biopic featuring Outkast’s André “3000” Benjamin, there are talks of a Marvin Gaye life story movie, a film chronicling the career of Blondie’s Debbie Harry starring Kirsten Dunst (I know, I know, I too cringe at this idea), a Freddie Mercury piece starring Sacha “Borat” Cohen (fairly dead on casting if you ask me), and even a film about the short-lived pop scam artists Milli Vanilli with two of the Wayans Brothers rumored to headline. Also let’s not forget the inevitable James Brown biopic, which already has an IMDB page slotted for a 2009 release. From this list alone (who knows how many others are in the works) it’s clear that there are a slew of possibly brilliant, possibly horrid music films ahead in the future. It also begs the question what’s next?

There is nothing wrong with honoring or exploring a musician or band’s career through film, however, like all genres in Hollywood these films are in danger of being overdone. Ray and Walk the Line proved that there is big money and endless award possibilities in films honoring recently deceased greats. This concept makes sense, however, it often leads to equally warranted legends being overlooked.

Sly Stone was once a prolific soul/funk/rock powerhouse who influenced countless musicians including jazz legend Miles Davis (the Miles biopic is definitely warranted in my opinion) and had an unprecedented career but people are quick to forget about his importance since he’s been out of the spotlight for quite some time. Besides being considered a musical genius with an impressive career behind him, Frank Zappa was also an outspoken advocate for first amendment free speech rights– the PMRC censorship trial that Zappa testified at in 1985 was a pinnacle moment in pop music history. These are just two examples from a long list of people who I believe are much more interesting and important than someone like Debbie Harry (sorry Blondie fans). Then there is the world of Jazz music, which today is often completely forgotten about save a small population.

Clint Eastwood’s overlooked biopic, Bird, about the troubled bop jazz genius Charlie Parker did justice to the sax players life but why not take on equally important cats such as avant-garde masters Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, electric bass pioneer Jaco Pastorius or even blues legend Robert Johnson, whose “sold my soul to the devil” mythology alone is worth a film of sorts. I can’t help but think that these stories are equally as important as someone like Ray Charles and long overdue for a film or documentary.

In the past there have been a number of stellar music documentaries and biopics that were worthy of their visions. Alex Cox’s daunting but fascinating film, Sid and Nancy, explored the dark side of Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious, one truly troubled musician, and was rocketed by a near flawless performance by Gary Oldman. Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense is probably the crème of the crop when it comes to concerts chronicled on film thanks to a minimalist yet creative vision and a band as unique as the Talking Heads working in its prime. In the overlooked indie music documentary arena there have been a number of exemplary titles in recent years. Films such as 1999s The Buena Vista Social Club, a film that introduced world audiences to a small sect of Cuban jazz musicians whose music barely made it across the ocean prior to the film’s release; American Hardcore, an exploration of the 80s underground punk scene in the United States or Scratch, a cool sleeper from a couple years back that paid homage to the “two turntables and a microphone” musical philosophy and the world of DJ artists, are just a couple examples of small, no thrills niche music documentaries that prove that big names and big budgets don’t always lead to greatness.

It’s important for filmmakers and documentarians alike to continue tapping into musical history as well as explore current trends (anyone see that street dance movie Rize a couple years ago?). These films can not only honor the subjects but also serve as windows for younger audiences/listeners to explore music they may not be familiar with. Like all cinematic endeavors however, music films should be handled with care and should not be made just for the sake of being made or because studio execs see it as a vehicle for top dollars and Oscar gold. Film, if done right, can be a tool with endless opportunities. I trust Scorsese with a Harrison project because I know his passion is in the right place and I look forward to this intriguing Dylan film, I’m Not There, because it’s appears to stray away from formulaic biopic norms. Still I can’t help but be skeptical when I hear about the next big budget biopic to hit the theaters. Then again it’s up to the filmmakers to help shed this doubt.