Shine a Light

Rock concert documentary

  • Directed by Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert film bombs horribly in the first half, but rights itself in the span of one song and sails on to to a glorious but too-soon finish. If the first half had been as good as the second, Shine a Light would sit next to Scorsese’s The Last Waltz among the greatest rock movies ever made.

Considering the age and apparent health of Mick, Keith, and the gang, it’s also one hell of an endorsement for the rock and roll lifestyle.

Scorsese starts the film with cinema vérité scenes of hassles involved with setting up a filmed concert. He needs a set list, the Stones won’t give it to him. Mick Jagger complains that Scorsese’s many moving cameras will annoy the live audience. Bill Clinton arrives and hugs all of the Stones, prompting the director to ask “Is this a benefit?” (It is, and he should have known that.)

Once the music starts, the Stones just seem to be going through the motions. Not that the motions themselves aren’t damn impressive for men in their 60’s. Jagger dances around the stage like a rocker half his age, but there’s no meaning to the movements or feeling in his voice. I can understand a singer slowing down as he gets older (as Jagger apparently has not done), but not his losing the ability to emotion into a sad song. With the exception of Ron Wood, the rest of the Stones seem equally uninterested in anything beyond proving their stamina.

Then, at about the half-way point, Jagger brings on the great bluesman Buddy Guy to help him cover Muddy Waters’ Champagne and Reefer (the second of three guest appearances). Guy understands the blues, and his singing blows Jagger out of the water. But a surprising thing happens: Jagger rises to the occasion. And so does Richards. And when Guy leaves at the end of that song, the joy and excitement he brought with him stays behind, and the Rolling Stones play like it was 1969.

Now when Jagger struts, he struts for a reason. And when he turns his back to the audience and wiggles his ass, he doesn’t look ridiculous. His voice contains its old power and authority, and he sings as if he means every word. Meanwhile, Keith Richards takes guitar solos that sound like liquid gold etched in acid. He even puts down his guitar to sing a couple of songs. The rest of the band–by which I mean not just Wood and Charlie Watts but the large selection of session musicians behind them–join in on the fun and enthusiasm.

By the time Jagger thanks the audience and wishes everyone a good night, you understand why God created encores. We get two of them, ending, of course, with Satisfaction.

Time, quite obviously, is still on their side. The musical Rolling Stones, like the proverbial one, hasn’t gathered much moss.

By the way, I saw Shine a Light at the Elmwood; my first visit to that theater since it changed ownership and underwent a renovation. The sound–at least in the big, downstairs theater–is fantastic.