Dir: Martin Scorsese. US. 2008. 123 mins.
Raunchy and affectionate, Scorsese's Rolling Stones film, which opened this year's Berlinale, is as much homage as concert film. In bringing the miracle of the Stones' survival to a wider audience, it's the cinematic equivalent of an all-singing, all-dancing Tutankhamun exhibition. And for all its delight this is one of the limitations of what is nevertheless a lively, likeable, hip-shaking two-hour rockfest. Every concert film needs to tell a story, and in choosing the narrative of miraculous preservation, coupled with a technically flawless but often surprisingly conventional shooting style, Scorsese inevitably forfeits some of the rawness of the straight-up live rock movie.
But then again, this was never going to be your average Stones gig. The film is an edited medley of two Stones concerts held at New York's historic Beacon Theatre in the autumn of 2006, one of which was tied in with Bill Clinton's 60th birthday bash, with part of the proceeds going to the former president's charitable foundation. To give him his due, Scorsese takes an ironic view of the Clinton connection - at its keenest in the stiff embrace between a besuited Bill and the members of the band. But although audience footage is kept to a minimum, there's no getting away from the fact that this is not your usual crowd of Stones fans: some of the girls up front look like they're at a debutante's ball instead of a rock gig.
Despite the prestige of the Scorsese brand, and the track record of the director's previous two rockumentaries, The Last Waltz and No Direction Home, Shine a Light will play best to those who know and love the Stones - and who have the patience to sit through the newer songs. Still, it's a moot point whether any concert film has a wider appeal than the artist it portrays - and Shine A Light does at least make a decent stab at three-act structure to keep its seated, non-dancing cinema audience happy. The film's US release by Paramount on April 4 will provide advance warning for other distributors of whether the film has legs to reach the kind of people who like the band but would never buy a ticket to a Stones concert.
It kicks off with a 15-minute black-and-white intro in which Scorsese himself features (and, one suspects, plays to the gallery) as a director continually frustrated by the difficulty of discussing the gig with the band, and the limitations of the venerable old theatre. Then we're into Jumpin' Jack Flash, a nicely explosive start to the main meal. Though there are lulls thereafter (even the editing seems to become more soporific when the newer material is played), they never last long, and carefully-paced guest appearances by Jack White, Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilera act, in their way, as script turning points. Archive footage from old interviews is weaved in with the main concert thread - paradoxically we find ourselves wanting more rather than less of this, as Scorsese's real interest often seems to lie in the ironic juxtapositions that he creates by splicing then and now (as he did in No Direction Home).
It's like a Hollywood cinematographers' convention up there on and over the stage: chief DoP Robert Richardson (JFK, The Aviator) used nineteen 'assistants' using a variety of cameras and formats to capture every grind of Jagger's groin - from legends like Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter) to younger talents like Ellen Kuras (Be Kind Rewind) and Richard Elswit (There Will Be Blood). The result is some great, sharp-focus footage from all sorts of angles, and some wonderful stolen moments (Charlie Watts turning to the camera and sighing with exhaustion at the end of a song, Keith Richards spitting out a cigarette in a way that proves once and for all that Punk's Not Dead).
But in the end, what comes through most strongly from Shine A Light - and what we yearn for more of - is the character dynamics of four people who have been living, drinking, indulging and touring together for over 45 years. Jagger and Richards in particular seem at times to mime, in rock poses, the mix of old tensions and well-worn affection of an old married couple. Here's to the fiftieth anniversary.
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