Things I Learned Watching Shine a Light


Or, you know, don’t

The last time the Rolling Stones made an IMAX concert movie, it was 1991 and I was 12 years old. For reasons I can’t quite remember, I wanted to go see Live at the Max, but my dad rebuffed me thusly: “I don’t want some bearded biker to hit me over the head with a chain and steal my wallet.” What do you say to that? To this day, I’m still not entirely certain whether my dad really thought a second Altamont was going to break out in the same theater where we saw To Fly like fifty bazillion times or whether he just really, really didn’t want to go.

There were times during Shine a Light, the Stones new IMAX concert movie, when I wished a bearded biker would hit me over the head with a chain and steal my wallet, if only because then I’d have a valid excuse to leave the theater. Remember that shot in Gimme Shelter where Keith prances around out of focus in the foreground while a Hitlerian Hell’s Angel, standing on the side of the stage, stares at him with utter contempt? I felt sort of like that guy throughout Shine a Light. Unfortunately, there were only like seven other people in the theater, and none of them were thieving bikers, so I didn’t get lumped up. I did, however, learn some things. Like these:

– If you want to go see a movie at the Union Square multiplex at noon on a Thursday, it’ll now cost you $11.75. What the hell is that?

– The next time Martin Scorsese makes a concert movie, he should maybe consider not putting himself in front of his own camera. In The Last Waltz, he’s a weaselly hanger-on, laughing at all Robbie Robertson’s jokes. In Shine a Light, he’s a stammering nebbish, which I suppose is some sort of improvement. The first twenty minutes of Shine a Light work as a making-of featurette for the movie we’re about to watch. We see Scorsese rushing all around, interrogating light people, begging the band’s people for a list of songs they’re going to play. None of this particularly rivets. Throughout, I impatiently waited for the real show to begin. When it began, I missed the making-of stuff.

Shine a Light documents two shows the band played at the Beacon Theater last year, apparently benefits for Bill Clinton’s foundation. The Clintons show up in the beginning, making small talk with the band, and everyone either looks tired or uncomfortable. The intense revulsion I feel whenever a Clinton shows up onscreen is an entirely new thing, something I haven’t experienced outside of TV news. I wonder whether it’ll fade eventually or whether I’ll just never be able to watch Contact again.

– Hillary, just like an asshole, keeps everyone waiting for her mom to show up to the meet and greet.

Shine a Light might be a Scorsese movie, but it’s not a Scorsese Movie. I’m at a loss to explain how someone who’s used Stones tracks so iconically in his other movies and who filmed the Band so elegiacally in The Last Waltz could become so hamfisted when it came time to film the Stones themselves. Like most dilettantish movie dorks, I consider Scorsese to be probably our greatest living director, but anyone could’ve filmed these concert scenes, and I can think of a few people who would’ve done it a lot better. Here, he films the band in a series of tight close-ups, cutting them all up into a choppy, arrhythmic blur. Scorsese seems boxed in by the relative intimacy of the Beacon, and I get the impression he would’ve been better off taping one of the Stones’ usual stadium-shows; at least then he’d have some space to move the camera. If anything, the clumsy visuals here actually take away from the music. The concert in that Hannah Montana 3D movie was more fluidly captured.

– Every once in a while, we get an old clip of the 60s or 70s Stones cheekily dodging interviewers’ questions, and I’d love to see Scorsese turn all these into a documentary, the way he did with Bob Dylan in No Direction Home. In this context, though, the clips serve to turn this movie into a weird and impenetrable statement about aging. It’s meant to inspire, I suppose, that the Stones are all limber enough at their ages to hold a stage down the way they do here. For plenty of viewers, I’m sure it does inspire. But for someone who was two years old the last time the band scored an honest-to-God hit, it’s a bit depressing to see these leathery old guys running one more time through a schtick they’ve been hammering into the ground for decades. Jagger is now less a stage presence than a bundle of familiar theatrical tics: the pursed lips, the stuttered exclamations, the convulsive full-body shimmy where he explodes forward or backward across the stage. His greasy slither was incendiary once upon a time, but he’s essentially been doing an impression of himself for so long that I can’ remember ever seeing one of those blown-back limb-spasms that seemed spontaneous.

– Still, we’re not talking about Aerosmith or Elton John or any of the other relics currently cluttering up the arena-tour circuit. Unlike those guys, the Stones were once really, really great, and they still pack the songs to prove it. Repetition has rendered some of those songs effectively meaningless; I never need to hear “Satisfaction” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” again. But when they launch into something like “Some Girls” and dial down the schtick, they can still sort of crush.

– Keith Richards starts out jowly and catatonic, but by the time the movie reaches its halfway point, he’s got some of that old sly mischief back in his eyes. By the time he steps to the mic for a couple of songs late in the movie, he’s all cackling libertine charisma, and I’m wishing he would’ve spent the whole night singing and given Jagger a break.

– It might be interesting to see what would happen if the four remaining Stones played a show without a battalion of session-musicians filling in the blanks behind them.

– A few guests show up onstage. Christina Aguilera plays an able Turneresque foil to Jagger, while Jack White looks a bit sheepish and nervous. The person who walks away from the whole movie smelling best is Buddy Guy. For one long moment, Guy stares silently and menacingly at the camera before he begins singing, and Scorsese, for once, doesn’t cut away. Charlie Watts, with his dapper restraint, has something of that authority, and Richards shows brief sparks of it. Jagger could have it, too, but he’d rather play a cartoon version of his younger self.

– When the Stones play “Sympathy for the Devil” in Gimme Shelter, someone gets stabbed to death. When they play it in Shine a Light, someone holds a vanity Stones license plate up to the camera. I guess the license plate thing is, all things considered, preferable. But I can’t say I’m happy about either one.