Martin Scorcese’s direction on his new movie, a Rolling Stones concert filmed in large format Imax, is largely utilitarian. It’s all he can do to keep up. He turns this into a running gag; in the opening of Shine a Light , we see Scorcese flummoxed at the lack of communication from the band that makes planning impossible. Mick Jagger still hasn’t approved of the set design, even though the deadline for construction has come and gone. He refuses to give Scorcese the set list, so that the director can plan his shots around the songs. Jagger even says, “I’m not sure we want all those cameras around, distracting people. Are you going to have one of those flying cameras?” Scorcese, deadpan: “Yes, it would be nice to be able to movie in. You know, and out.”
These are not the first difficult artists Scorcese has had to deal with, and the results are worth it. The concert, which took place as a Clinton benefit at the tiny Beacon Theater in New York, starts a little shaky. Jagger seems to be soldering through words he doesn’t want to say, on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, having sung them 10,000 times before. But his personal energy – the way he barrels around the stage, his too-short shirt revealing his flat belly as he wiggles his hips and shakes his butt at the crowd – begins to astonish. You’re sure that he could never sustain that momentum, but mostly he does. This nuclear power plant of a man is what has kept the band together all these years. That, and each band member’s obvious love of performance. And by concert’s end, Jagger has revved himself, the band, and the audience to such a level that when more fan favorites arrive, they are thrillingly new.
The Rolling Stones, each now in their sixties, aren’t what they once were; but it’s not like that’s what we want. At the time of their four seminal albums, culminating in 1972’s Exile on Main Street, their musicianship was perfectly matched by edgy songwriting; they were dangerous. Now, after years of famously hard living, drinking, smoking, doing drugs, and womanizing, Keith Richards looks like he’s been ridden hard and put away wet. He acknowledges this to the crowd: “Glad to see you,” he tells them. “Hell, I’m glad to see anybody.” Richards’ guitar virtuosity is long gone; but his magnetism has only increased. He’s a self-consciously iconic figure now, shot by Scorcese largely from low angle, the Stones looming above us like leaning giants.
What Scorcese is about is filming a paean to longevity. He cuts to archival footage of Mick Jagger, when the band had only been together for three years. “Can you see yourself doing this in your sixties?” the interviewer asks. “Oh, yeah, absolutely,” says Jagger. History is written all over his sinewy body, and in the deep, lost crevasses of Keith Richards’s face. Great artists get more interesting as they age, not less.
We have Scorcese to thank for knowing that, and for capturing the Stones at their latter day apex. That he has done so in Imax is no mean feat; those cameras are enormous, as is the budget required to shoot with them, and the talent required to operate. Cinamatographer Robert Richardson, and nine other DPs, Oscar winners or nominees all, for the most part pulled it off. Some moments are pure Scorcese, as when Jagger runs straight up the middle at the crowd and a 200 pound camera flies in to meet him. It pushes you right back in your seat. An Imax film, on a mighty sixty-foot by eighty-foot screen, with 12,000 watts of sound amplification, gives you a detail and vibrancy that is unmatched by any other medium. Like the Stones, everything about Imax is big, repudiating the idea of watching or listening on a cell phone. As David Lynch has said, “You’ll think you’re experiencing a movie on your phone, but you’re not. You’re being cheated. Get real.”
Reviewing Shine a Light for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.