Monday, April 07, 2008

Review - Shine a Light

"Can you see yourself still doing this when you're sixty?" the interviewer asks; "yeah, easily" the fresh-faced young rock star replies. The man answering the questions in this clip from the early 70's is Mick Jagger, and, true to his word, Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light finds him and the rest of The Rolling Stones still doing what they do best, with each member of the band well into their seventh decade. Actually, that last bit isn't quite accurate, as Ronnie Wood was a sprightly 59 when this picture was filmed back in 2006; the event being a concert in aid of the Clinton Foundation (Bill and family are in attendance) at New York's Beacon Theatre. Shine a Light is comprised of two performances, over consecutive nights, which have been classily compiled into a seamless, frequently exhilarating whole by Scorsese, and surely no director alive could be more qualified to shoot this band. Think of Johnny Boy swaggering into the bar in Mean Streets, Henry Hill coked up and paranoid in Goodfellas, or Nicky and his gang indulging in a Vegas crime spree in Casino – Scorsese's films have pulsated to the music of The Stones for over thirty years.

In the opening moments of
Shine a Light, however, this project appears to be causing the venerable director a few headaches. The first twenty minutes, shot in grainy black-and-white, allow us to take a look behind the scenes as Scorsese, the band, and various technicians, work out the logistics of staging and filming the show. Mick is concerned about the audience's view being obstructed by the cameras ("it would be nice to have a camera that moves" Scorsese remarks), while the director himself is more worried about the suggestion that the onstage lights might overheat ("No" he states firmly, "we cannot burn Mick Jagger"). These scenes are lively and amusing, offering us a view of the band away from the stage, preparing for the show in minute detail. I was particularly taken with the sight of Jagger poring over his set lists, carefully divided into categories like "obscure songs", "songs for Marty" and, intriguingly, "songs we'd rather not play again", and those set lists are a bone of contention throughout this opening segment, with Scorsese constantly pleading for a copy ahead of the show, and repeatedly being rebuffed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this backstage peek – even if some of feels a little hokey and overplayed – but
Shine a Light is really all about the performance. When The Stones take to the stage, the film flips – Wizard of Oz-style – into glorious colour, and it certainly is glorious, with Scorsese employing a breathtaking roster of grade-A cinematographers for the production. Emmanuel Lubezki, Robert Elswit, Stuart Dryburgh, John Toll and Andrew Lesnie are all on board, working under the supervision of the great Robert Richardson; and they ensure Shine a Light is both a visually resplendent movie – particularly in its IMAX format – and a surprisingly intimate one, with the 18 cameras catching the band from a number of unexpected angles (although, did we need the shot that lets us count every filling in Jagger's teeth?). David Tedeschi, who edited Scorsese's outstanding Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, performs a similarly fluid job here, and he picks up on some lovely throwaway moments; like Keith Richards spitting his cigarette out in a haze of sparks, or Charlie Watts – the calm centre of the Stones' storm – puffing out his cheeks after a particularly strenuous set.

In between songs, Scorsese cuts in some well-chosen archive footage of the band being interviewed down the years, often to hilarious effect. The question "how long can you keep this up?" becomes something of a running joke, and the young(er) Stones have fun playing a straight bat with the endlessly inane questions ("What's the last thing you do before you go on stage?" one interviewer asks Keith; "Wake up", he replies, deadpan). As you'd expect, Scorsese has dug up some gems here, but I could have done with either more of these cutaways or less, because the director does quickly lapse into a rather repetitive pattern, going from song to interview to song to interview – repeat to fade.

Such a structure does leave
Shine a Light suffering from a little drag around halfway through the picture – coincidentally, around the point where Mick hops off for a break leaving Keith to hold court for a while ("It's nice to see you," he tells the crowd, "it's nice to see anybody!") – but the band's music manages to spark the movie back into its groove whenever it threatens to stall. Occasionally, they'll shake things up by bringing a guest into play, but only one of these turns really worked for me, Buddy Guy's fantastic rendition of Champagne and Reefer, with his and Jagger's contrasting styles clashing beautifully. It seemed to me that Mick got much more enjoyment out of Christina Aguilera's brief appearance onstage, though, if his frankly disturbing gyrations next to her were anything to go by. Aside from these cameos, the rest of the film is all about The Stones, and it's mostly terrific stuff. It's a damn shame to note the absence of Paint it Black or perennial Scorsese favourite Gimme Shelter, but the band make up for it with electrifying performances of Jumpin' Jack Flash, Sympathy for the Devil and Brown Sugar. When they really get going, the band generates a contagious, invigorating energy, and Scorsese's ability to capture that is what really makes Shine a Light tick.

It's true that
Shine a Light isn't much more than a straightforward concert movie at the end of the day; the film doesn't feel as unique or personal as Scorsese's The Last Waltz or as exploratory as No Direction Home, but it isn't trying to work on those levels. The director doesn't want to dig beneath the band's reputations or investigate their relationships with each other, he just wants to share the experience of a live concert with us; and if nothing else, Shine a Light exists as a remarkable testament to the group's age-defying brilliance. Jagger remains a wonder to behold, snaking androgynously across the stage and dancing manically with a seemingly bottomless reserve of energy; while Keith, Ronnie and Charlie haven't let age wither their precision or skill. Do The Rolling Stones still have another decade of performing still in them? I wouldn't bet against it.