So we’re going with something a little different this week. In what is the first non-fiction film I’ve ever reviewed, Martin Scorsese gets behind the camera to present a part-concert, part-documentary film chronicling two night shows by iconic band The Rolling Stones at the historic Beacon Theatre in New York City. Although the original plan was to document highlights of The Stones’ A Bigger Bang world tour, Scorsese opted for a more intimate and familiar setting with Shine a Light, no doubt giving him a lot more options as far as acoustics and camera stations go.
Formed a whole five years before Marty even released his first feature film (that’s 1962), The Stones have been among the most enduring rock and roll bands in history, and are a perfect match for the Taxi Driver director. Each has aged like a fine wine, displaying invaluable experience in their relative industries with every project they churn out — never lacking in professionalism or passion for what they do.
Approaching seventy years old, front man Mick Jagger has not lost a step. His energetic performance alone keeps you from taking your eyes off the screen for two hours, and he is complemented by the rhythmic brotherhood that is Ronnie Wood and the seemingly immortal Keith Richards. Curiously, drummer Charlie Watts hardly appears on-screen during Shine a Light, which is odd considering his prominence and input in other Stones documentaries (most notably Gimme Shelter).
Scorsese’s role in this film would best be described as “overseer,” rather than director. Granted, there is only so much one can do with the camera when filming a non-fiction concert as opposed to a narrative, but one does get the impression that Marty took a back seat on this one and allowed The Stones to do their job without the concern of multiple cameras minimizing the stage space during the show.
That being said, Shine a Light does contain moments of cinematic class, particularly during more energetic songs such as Sympathy For The Devil and Live With Me (a surprisingly excellent duet with Christina Aguilera). The editing of archival footage between songs is scarce, with the live performance itself taking obvious priority. However, it is at a premium during Keith Richards’ rendition of You Got The Silver, seamlessly intercutting the song with characteristic responses by the man during interviews conducted in the band’s early days.
A minor issue of concern relates to the “fans” in the front row. In what has become a rumor that’s never actually been proven, it is clear that the rim of the stage has been lined with young, attractive men and women (some ostensibly decked out in Stones merchandise) who are unlikely to be genuine fans, but rather extras who have been employed to make the final transfer to film look sexier. In a fictional piece, this would be a non-issue, but it is rather distracting in a live concert environment. I’ll let you make up your own mind on that one.
Is it the defining Stones film? Even with Scorsese at the helm, it dosen’t quite match up to Gimme Shelter. But with two such juxtaposed films (Gimme Shelter details an immense free concert the Stones hosted during which four babies were born and four people were killed), Shine a Light doesn’t have much to stand on. As an individual piece, however, it is very engaging, more so for diehard fans of the band, the director, or both.