Rebellion, Incorporated: Shine a Light

Is it still rock and roll if there are more Secret Service agents than groupies milling around backstage?

Rebellion, Incorporated: Shine a Light
Photo: Paramount Vantage

Shine a Light isn’t the first IMAX movie about dinosaurs, but it may the first on which the dinosaurs receive Executive Producer credit. This knockout Rolling Stones concert film records the venerable band’s two-night stand at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater in October, 2006. Far from run-of-the-mill, both performances were events, captured in IMAX by director and longtime Stones fan Martin Scorsese, and presented in honor of former president Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday.

Stones! Scorsese! Clinton? Is it still rock and roll if there are more Secret Service agents than groupies milling around backstage? If recklessness and hedonism are made to rub shoulders with the responsibilities of being A-list entertainers and formidable businessmen? (This last tour is said to be the most lucrative in music history.) The Rolling Stones manage this dilemma by preserving their image as the kind of group that never asks such questions of itself.

Scorsese does ask, though. He’s been interested in celebrity, its dynamics and discontents, going back at least as far as Taxi Driver. His previous non-fiction project, the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, delves into the early years of a ’60s rock icon who has refused time and again to heed the public’s desires and whose hostility (often visited upon stunned journalists or admirers) can be painful to observe. The Stones, on the other hand, have continued to prosper by giving fans what they want while pretending it’s the easiest, most natural thing in the world. Theirs is an art of consistency.

By dropping an insert of pool-playing guitarist Ron Wood before cutting to the picture’s title card, Scorsese alludes to his previous concert movie, The Last Waltz, which opened with the Band’s Rick Danko shooting pool. Yet whereas The Last Waltz commemorated the Band’s 1976 farewell performance, Shine a Light sings the praises of a group that seems now as if nothing short of death—and maybe not even that—could make it quit touring. That the members of the Band were worn out after a mere ten years on the road seems laughable in comparison.

Shine a Light’s first ten minutes document the whirlwind preparations and minor power struggles leading up to the Beacon Theater concerts. Scorsese, desperate for a set list, seems only to receive one as the lights go down. Mick Jagger feels that having cameras whizzing around the stage distracts both the band and the audience, but the filmmaker, who loves a mobile camera the way Hitchcock loved blondes, lobbies successfully for one crane-mounted unit. Upon being told that a desired lighting effect could potentially send the singer up in flames, however, Scorsese warns a technician, “We cannot burn Mick Jagger. We want the effect, but we can’t burn him.”

One can’t be sure whether Jagger and Scorsese are manufacturing tensions for the cameras (I suspect they are), but in any case, the entertaining prologue reminds the audience just how much work goes into putting on a rock show. It’s not only the major tasks like designing the stage or coordinating with the camera crew (a murderers’ row of cinematographers captained by Robert Richardson and including Robert Elswit, Ellen Kuras, and Emmanuel Lubezki). The devil is in the details: Keith Richards needs to be sure, for instance, that he can see the pedal of Charlie Watts’s kick drum. And then there are the Clintons’ guests to welcome. (“Hey, Clinton, I’m Bushed!” Richards quips to Watts on the side.)

As fascinating as this introductory material is, it all fades away (as it should) once the Stones take the stage. When the opening riff of “Jumping Jack Flash” peals out like a cannon shot, and Richards emerges mid-strum from a burst of white light to fill the enormous IMAX screen, it’s tough not to get swept up in the moment. The set proceeds the way most Rolling Stones concerts have for the past few tours. The first hour is a mix of golden oldies, deep cuts (leaning heavily in this case on the albums Exile on Main Street and Some Girls), plus a couple of cover tunes. The indefatigable Jagger never stops moving: he prances, preens, shimmies, and struts. (Editor David Tedeschi’s pulsating, propulsive cutting keeps pace with the singer’s every step and hip-shake.) Jagger is generally in good voice, if occasionally mannered in his phrasing. In some ways, he’s a more commanding front man now than in his youth. The ironies exposed by 40-year-old lyrics such as “My riches can’t buy everything” (“As Tears Go By”) complicate the performance. Coupled with lucid photography highlighting the deep creases in each man’s face, the songs seem part of a conversation between the band’s older and younger selves.

Richards acts as conductor, whether locking in with Watts or bassist Darryl Jones; weaving serpentine guitar lines with Wood; or laughing his ass off for no apparent reason. (Is there a man on earth who enjoys his job more than Keith Richards?) The indestructible guitarist sings lead for two songs at the evening’s midpoint, including one of the Stones’ most tender, truehearted ballads, “You Got the Silver.” The otherwise rapid editing slows down for this song, with longer shots providing breathing room for Richards’s cracked lounge singer act. Then Jagger returns, and it’s a home-stretch sprint through greatest hits like “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Start Me Up,” and “Brown Sugar.” Every fan will nitpick the selections (I could go the rest of my life without ever again hearing the dreadful “Shattered”), but few will leave the theater disappointed.

No less than The Last Waltz, Shine a Light is a superbly photographed concert film. The remote-controlled camera’s swooping and diving may grab the viewer’s attention at first, but the close-ups are equally striking. If A Hard Day’s Night is the rock-movie genre’s answer to Breathless, then this picture could be its Passion of Joan of Arc. It balances the long-term effects of age—and decadence—upon the human face with the fleeting, expressive reactions to hearing and making music.

The virtual concert Shine a Light distinguishes itself from the genuine article in three ways. First, the cameras put the viewer onstage with the band, so close that at times you may feel as if you’re perched on the musicians’ shoulders. Concluding the uptempo song “All Down the Line,” the generally unflappable Watts turns to the camera and puffs out his cheeks wryly, as if to say, “Just barely made it through that one.” It’s worth seeing just for the minute interactions among band members—the glances, cues, and smiles that generally go unobserved beyond the first few rows.

Second, there is a roster of special guests. The White Stripes’ Jack White, plainly giddy to be playing with the Rolling Stones, joins them for Exile’s great “Loving Cup.” Buddy Guy trots out with his polka-dotted guitar and roars through Muddy Waters’s “Champagne and Reefer.” (It takes stones of a different kind to play a song for the Clintons about smoking—and inhaling!—dope.) Richards, ever the humble acolyte when it comes to American bluesmen, circles Guy intently during one of the other’s solo choruses, apparently trying to take him in from all angles. And anyone who thinks this band has gotten too respectable in its old age need only watch Jagger, as lascivious as Nero, come on to Christina Aguilera during their “Live with Me” duet, one of the set’s highlights. It’s a shame the pair didn’t do “Gimme Shelter,” as well, what with Aguilera’s million-dollar pipes.

Finally, Scorsese and Tedeschi intersperse the songs with archived interview footage. The extracts span the group’s career but concentrate on their first ten or fifteen years. It’s rather charming to track the progression as the clothes and hair become more outré, while Jagger and Richards appear more frequently and visibly stoned. One running joke reminds us that they’ve had to deal with the question “How much longer can you keep this up?” practically since day one. A fresh-faced Jagger, probably filmed in 1964 or ’65, responds to an unseen interviewer that he never thought they’d last as long as they have (two years), but they’ve probably got at least another year in them.

A friend of mine said last week that the younger Stones would have hated themselves had they foreseen the spectacle of Shine a Light: performing at a former U.S. president’s birthday party, where tickets fetched over $1,000 apiece and models were reportedly sought out to populate the front rows. It’s admittedly hard to imagine a less cool pre-show event than a meet-and-greet with Hillary Clinton’s mother. But rather than demonstrating how far the Rolling Stones have fallen from rock-and-roll demigod status, Shine a Light shows that this mingling and glad-handing—and the greater struggle to be simultaneously professional and spontaneous—is par for the course when you’re in a top-tier rock group. Pop music always has and always will be a business, and businessmen take meetings and conference calls; they have to press the flesh.

If the contradictions seem insurmountable, one could either ignore any misgivings and enjoy the music, or stay home and save the cost of a ticket. (Manhattan’s IMAX theater charges $16 for admission—nearly three times what it cost Rolling Stones fans to see them live in 1972.) Between these two poles of blind acceptance and silent protest, however, I think Shine a Light is getting at a subtler point, which Scorsese teases out using the interviews and other youthful footage. It’s not simply that aging has mellowed the Rolling Stones’ notoriety. America has changed more significantly since the mid-1960s than they have. When a circa-1967 clip shows Richards stepping off a plane wearing white feathers and Jackie O. sunglasses, he looks like an extraterrestrial, but so do his impossibly square interlocutors with their natty van dyke beards, carbon-copy suits, and obtuse questions. It’s easy to forget—I’m Not There’s recent reminder notwithstanding—how much the culture at large has relaxed since then. Pop stars are rarely prosecuted for drug charges anymore, and (with few exceptions) they’re generally considered spokesmen for little more than their own bank accounts.

If a rebellious image has become a commodity, then that’s in part because the powers-that-be have lightened up enough for rock and roll no longer to pose a threat. Baby-boomer executives and politicians grew up listening to “Satisfaction” and “Street Fighting Man” on their transistor radios. Of course they’d want to use the Stones (and the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, etc.) to advertise their products—or to hope at least that some hipness will rub off during a photo op. It’s precisely because the group has become an institution while still personifying ungovernable appetites that a Rolling Stones concert is the perfect choice for Bill Clinton’s birthday bash—although I guess that depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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