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Doing Honoré one better, the Rolling Stones once starred in their very own Jean-Luc Godard movie, 1968’s Sympathy for the Devil, in which footage of the band rehearsing the title song in a London recording studio was regularly upstaged by Godard’s polemical interludes featuring supposed black-power revolutionaries reading from ersatz political texts while torturing white women in a stylized junkyard. This week, the Stones are back on the big screen in a concert documentary that’s all rock and no politics (except those of the backstage variety), and, well, there’s no other way to put it: It’s a gas.
The movie is called Shine a Light, and as you may already know, it was directed by Martin Scorsese, who shot the film in the fall of 2006, just as he was in the midst of releasing The Departed. Those frantic days of preproduction now make up the opening passages of Shine a Light, as the director and his crew (a small army of the world’s best cinematographers, under the supervision of Oscar winner Robert Richardson) fret over the particulars at New York’s Beacon Theatre, while the band — then on the road during their A Bigger Bang tour — stealthily evade Scorsese’s efforts to get them on the phone. When they finally do connect, Mick Jagger is quick to announce his dislike of movie cameras, especially those that “whiz around all the time” and “annoy the audience.”
It’s a curious opening act, at once self-serving and revealing: a movie about the greatest rock band of all time that begins as a portrait of its famously intense, perfectionist director (who, in fairness, already has one of the greatest concert movies of all time — The Last Waltz — under his belt). Are we seeing the real “Marty” here or a canny extension of the live-TV director he memorably played in King of Comedy? * Is this life, or just a feature-length American Express commercial? Such questions fall away as soon as Scorsese is finally handed a set list, the lights go down and — as the Stones take the stage in a sudden eruption of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” — the previously standard-size image enlarges to fill the ginormous IMAX screen.
Shine a Light is being released in normal 35 mm cinemas too, where I suspect it won’t disappoint; but I saw it in IMAX and I urge you to do the same. Visually and sonically, it’s spellbinding, and quite unlike any other concert documentary, or IMAX movie, I’ve ever seen. In the 40 years between Godard and Scorsese, the Stones have been subject to no shortage of celluloid immortalizations, ranging from the political (the Maysles brothers’ historic 1970 Gimme Shelter) to the de-mythological (Robert Frank’s famously suppressed 1972 Cocksucker Blues) to the reverential (Hal Ashby’s flaccid 1983 Let’s Spend the Night Together). They’ve even been filmed in IMAX once before, for 1991’s At the Max. And while those films vary dramatically in quality, what they share is an emphasis on the bigness of the Stones — the huge arenas, the hordes of screaming fans. Scorsese takes the opposite approach. When the band initially suggested that Scorsese film them performing before a crowd of 1 million on the beach in Rio, he counterproposed New York and the Beacon (which seats a mere 2,800), and the result is a live-music film of uncommonly intimate proportions.
In fact, to call Shine a Light a documentary doesn’t quite nail it; it’s more of a macro-mentary, shot in such tight close-up that you can see the fillings in Mick’s teeth and the sweat stains in the armpits of his sequined magenta top. I’m not giving much away to say that Scorsese ultimately wins his battle for the whizzing, swooping, pirouetting camera (in addition to more than a dozen others shooting from more conventional angles), and it has the effect of putting us not in the front row or in the wings but right up onstage and then some. It gives us a gnat’s-eye view. (The sound mix, which renders every guitar lick and horn riff with exceptional clarity, is equally impressive.)
Though it occasionally cuts away to archival footage from the ’60s, Shine a Light doesn’t strive to be an all-encompassing Stones anthology on the order of Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary, No Direction Home, and despite a smattering of celebrity guest stars (Jagger memorably duets with Jack White on an ebullient “Loving Cup”; the legendary Louisiana blues man Buddy Guy stops by for a scintillating cover of Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer”) and a few shots of Bill Clinton in the audience, it’s not some nostalgic, legends-night revue either. What we get is something rarer: We’re seeing one great artist (Scorsese) trying to figure out what makes another (the Stones) tick, scrutinizing their every move, seldom breaking their (which is to say Jagger’s) entraining gaze.
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