Friday, April 4, 2008
The Stones have been spoiled by the caliber of filmmakers that have turned their cameras on these once bad boys of rock and roll. French New Waver Jean Luc-Godard put the band in the background of his Sympathy for the Devil ; the Maysles Brother made Gimme Shelter ; and Hal Ashby did Time is On Our Side . So why not hire the much lauded and acclaimed Scorsese to make what amounts to little more than a very commercial concert film. If you can afford the best, go for it.
Going for the best. Micke with DP Robert Richardson and director Martin Scorsese. (Paramount Classics)
Shine a Light was shot over two nights of the Stones' A Bigger Bang Tour. In keeping with the bigger is better notion, the film was blown up for IMAX projection and will open in 93 IMAX theaters, the biggest, big screen opening yet (just beating Harry Potter's 91 for Order of the Phoenix) . Apparently this didn't thrill Scorsese but Mick wanted it. But the film begins small, with a 1:85 B&W image occupying a fraction of the big screen real estate. The film retains this aspect ratio during all the backstage, pre-show footage. During this sequence, Scorsese looks pained as he tries to secure a set list from the band and coordinate the shoot with the more than a dozen top-notch cinematographers who signed on as his camera operators. Meanwhile, Mick complains about the set design; asks Scorsese if they really need so many cameras - especially the one on a crane - and Clinton brings in some 30-odd guests who all want a moment and a photo opp with the Stones. Clinton reminds the aging rockers that some of the fans he's bringing are in their 60s. With this flurry of backstage activity, Scorsese seems lost in the shuffle and commands little attention. The Stones, it seems, may have hired him but they don't want to make time to deal with him. Just as the show's about to start, the anxious Scorsese finally gets his set list and the film maxes out to its full screen dimensions.
Once the concert starts, Scorsese vanishes and it's all about the Stones. Fortunately, the band avoids playing only recent works and instead performs a career-spanning selection of their biggest hits. Mick may be 64 but he still puts on an energetic show as he struts about the stage. It's tiring just watching him. Keith Richards get a pair of solo numbers but is dissed by Mick (who disappears from the stage) and the filmmakers (who cut away from him in the second song). Interview clips repeatedly interrupt Keith's second song. It's as if Scorsese and editor David Tedeschi don't respect Keith enough to keep their attention focused on two complete songs. I mean why even bother to include the second song if you don't think Keith can hold the audience's attention for a pair of numbers.
Three guests appear: Jack White, Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilar. Aguilar's presence is a mystery to me. I can't see what she brings to the show. She's cute and has a nice voice but there are far better and more charismatic female singers out there that they could have called on. White I can understand bringing on board, he's a talented representative of the next gen and has a fan base that's not bad to tap into. Inviting Buddy Guy, though is a no-brainer. He brings a touch of class and a depth of talent (sounding better than Mick) to the song Champagne and Reefer.
Despite the host of cinematographers and vast banks of lights (which at one point they worry will set Mick on fire), Shine a Light takes a fairly simple and straightforward approach to documenting the concert. Scorsese captures the action up close, shows us the camaraderie of the band on stage, and gives the images a richness of color and detail. But it feels like mere documentation - get a lot of coverage and show the best stuff. I do want to mention the heavyweight lensers involved in the film. Robert Richardson is the credited director of photography while Oscar winning and/or nominated cinematographers John Toll, Robert Elswit, and Emmanuel Lubezki are among the gifted camera operators. These behind the camera celebs are even highlighted on the film's website, which says something about how valued they were.
There are also clips of archive interviews sprinkled throughout. Most play on the fact that the Stones are the longest lasting rock and roll band, having moved from bad boys to beloved seniors on the circuit. So we have very young Mick being asked how long he thinks the band can keep going (maybe another year or so he says), or being queried by Dick Cavett if he thinks he can be rocking when he's sixty. There's also a great clip from the British TV show World in Action that puts the then recently arrested Mick on the same show with a vicar, Jesuit and other odd establishment types. I also enjoyed clips of the usually silent drummer Charlie Watts considering that yeah, maybe he is great and of Keith confessing that the Stones keep going because they love what they do. Shine a Light supports both claims. But from a stylistic point of view, the old footage just breaks up the concert, it's jokey punctuation rather than being cleverly woven into the fabric of the film.
Ladies and gentlemen... The Rolling Stones. (Paramount Classics)
The workman like approach to the film reveals that Scorsese's heart isn't really in this one. This is not like the loving and carefully crafted portrait of The Band in The Last Waltz . It's not that Scorsese does a bad job, he just does a highly professional but uninspired one. The whole opening sequence (although I've read reports that's it's completely true and unstaged) comes across as contrived and manufactured. Maybe Scorsese did undergo great agony in preparing for the film but the way the footage is presented, it comes across as making a caricature of the great director. Sine a Light isn't helped by the fact that one of the first shots editor Tedeschi selects is of the Stones contemplating the set design for the show. I couldn't take it seriously because it was so reminiscent of the goofy Stonehenge episode from the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap.
A few other distractions: Keith Richards should never have allowed himself to be shot in extreme close-ups for IMAX. Time has not been kind to his face (or the rest of his body for that matter) and to be able to see every pore and every wrinkle is a bit scary. But it is funny to see the inspiration for Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow displaying the drunken swagger (that has now become so familiar in three Pirates movies ) live and on stage. In his solo, Keith can be seen clearly sporting a Pirates of the Caribbean brooch. Plus, although I love the Stones' music, they are not the greatest band to hear live. They put on a lively show, Mick is fun to watch and the sound design is clear and crisp, but the band itself just doesn't sound particularly good live. I was always more impressed by The Who live, I found that they actually sounded better (to my ear at least) in concert than they did on their albums. But not so with the Stones.
Shine a Light (rated PG-13 for brief strong language, drug references and smoking) is enjoyable and a great record of the Stones' latest concert tour. Yet it's just not a film that I can get truly excited about. It's a glossy concert film executed with slick professionalism but it lacks fire and any insight to the Stones. Maybe some new interviews might have helped lend a new perspective. So if you like the Stones, go and enjoy. If you love Scorsese, you might want to wait for another film if you want to see his genius at work. Or better yet, go rent The Last Waltz.
One note, there was an odd speck of dust in a few shots and an IMAX hair in the gate (be it in the camera or the projection) is quite large and distracting.
Companion viewing: Sympathy for the Devil, Gimme Shelter, The Last Waltz, This is Spinal Tap, Performance