Mick Jagger’s most essential physical feature, according to Martin Scorsese: his bellystache. On the poster for Shine a Light, the big-shot director’s Rolling Stones concert film, Sir Mick is frozen in mid-song aerobics, his back arched, his half-shirt raised, that yawning navel and faint hairline more prominently showcased than his trademark trout mouth. And there’s the hairline again in the movie, with Jagger stripped down to a black T-shirt, raising his arms in a game of taut-tummy peekaboo. Mick Jagger without a visible treasure trail is Sinatra with a cold, Picasso without paint. And it’s so crucial to Scorsese’s ode-to-old-folk vision that the movie couldn’t exist without it.
Shine a Light is not only a vanity project for everyone involved, it’s a total tongue bath. The backstory: Scorsese uses Stones anthems in his movies (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed), so the World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band asked the Very Excellent Film Director if he’d like to film the Highest-Grossing Tour of All Time. He happily obliged, the Stones signed on as producers, and all parties settled on documenting the second of two 2006 Stones-headlined charity benefits celebrating Bill Clinton’s 60th birthday. Both performances took place in upper Broadway’s Beacon Theatre, a gilded vaudeville hall with a capacity of 2,800.
In Stones proportions, this is tantamount to a basement show, so Shine a Light comes packaged with the pretense of “intimacy.” Not really a selling point: With Scorsese’s super-zoom gear, the band could’ve been on the moon. What the cozy circumstances do provide is icon interaction: drummer Charlie Watts trying to understand that even though he’d just met and greeted Clinton before the show, that period wasn’t the official “meet-and-greet”; Hillary Clinton making the Stones wait for her tardy mother; Keith Richards whispering about how he should walk up to Bill and say, “Hey, Clinton. I’m Bushed!” Meanwhile, a frantic Scorsese irons out last-minute logistics, admonishing one crew member over a lighting setup that could potentially set Mick on fire. (“We can’t burn Mick Jagger!”) These are Shine a Light‘s first and best 15 minutes.
The remaining 100 or so consist of a fairly decent, mostly unsurprising Stones concert. If Altamont was the Boston Massacre of rock shows, this Beacon date is a presidential-library dedication. In San Francisco, Hells Angels and tripping hippies lined the stage; in Manhattan nearly 40 years later, the front row is full of gym members and raised camera-phones. So invariably they get the hits (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Shattered,” “Satisfaction”), Keith singing like a hound dog in heat for “Connection,” and Jack White looking genuinely humbled to join Jagger for a superb rendition of “Loving Cup.” Special guest Buddy Guy is dapper, fitting, and possibly stoned; token female Christina Aguilera is actually pretty good—holy shit, those pipes!
This is the band whose celluloid legacy is Gimme Shelter—if someone doesn’t die, frankly, we’re all a little suspicious. Scorsese does splice the 90-minute performance with some hilarious archival footage: the band costumed in grande dame makeup and dresses, allegations way back when that the Stones had already become “as controversial as the local vicar.” Mostly, though, the excavated interviews are devices for groaningly trite foreshadowing. Gee whillikers, Mick, can you see yourself doing this at 60? Mick: Yes, I can. Cut to Jagger at 62, wiggling his preteen hips on a catwalk.
And so Shine a Light‘s only point seems to be: You try this at 60. One would hope that, after The Last Waltz and No Direction Home, Scorsese might venture beyond making a glossy episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Nope, and we’re not supposed to question it: Like the Stones, Marty’s earned the right to coast, especially in his senior years.
Which brings us back to the bellystache. Mick’s cheek crevices may look like they could swallow a truck, and his “Sympathy for the Devil” woooo-hooo may now sound like a dying crow, but that bafflingly tight stomach is a wondrous relic, impressive for any man of any age. Shine a Light is not.