Empathy for the Stones

Maui Time | March 31, 2008
Martin Scorsese returns to the rock 'n' roll concert documentary genre that he helped develop in 1978 with The Last Waltz, to capture an energized performance by The Rolling Stones at New York's Beacon Theater in the fall of 2006. Sparsely augmented with brief interview and performance segments, Shine a Light (the film's title was taken from the Stones' Exile on Main Street album) provides an incredibly intimate look at rock 'n' roll's greatest living band performing a slew of timeless favorites and a few lesser known songs. Buddy Guy, Jack Black, and Christina Aguilera make memorable duet guest appearances on several songs, but it's Mick Jagger's famous athleticism that captures your imagination. Even in his '60s, Jagger never stops moving like a juiced-up Iggy Pop as he drives the band to the far reaches of sonic space. The level of musical sophistication on display is divine, and Scorsese seals the enchanting event with a closing bit of camera virtuosity that puts it all in context.

We get a taste of the boisterous working dynamic between Mick and Marty in a phone message clip from Jagger about confusion regarding the stage set that's already being built before being entirely approved. There's plenty of tension and personality in Mick’s concerned voice, as Marty's good-humored ability to make carefully tilled snap decisions enables the crew around him to carry out his will.

Where Scorsese's focus for the The Last Waltz was on capturing a cultural zeitgeist that supported a generational shift of musical ideas, here he goes after the incredibly honed inner-workings of the Rolling Stones' performance style and musical delivery. A horn section, a pair of back-up singers and a mobile percussionist add rhythmic and harmonic textures to Mick's precise yet spontaneous phrasing. The communication that goes on between the musicians is nearly always on display, and it's inside this happy convergence of rock orchestration that we experience the Rolling Stones as a musically refined group running on pure instinct.

That might sound odd considering the unimaginable amount of songwriting, rehearsal, and performance experience the band has accumulated over its 46 years, but the Stones are so marinated in the joy of making music together that the story their songs tell can't help but be refreshed.

More than a DNA sampling of the band's endurance gene, the film is a wide open celebration of the blues music that the Stones have expounded on with as much invention as any jazz artist alive. When Jack White joins Mick on "Loving Cup," the two singers harmonize from different registers. Both men strum away on acoustic guitars, and the effect is an eerie and whiny country-inflected sound that digs under swamp tree roots to extract a rough and rugged pearl. Keith Richards gets some well-deserved centerstage time with "You Got the Silver" and "Connection," his tobacco-bruised voice stretching even at moderate interval leaps.

There's just enough use of interview footage from the '60s and '70s to give an informal sense of Jagger's ironic honesty that engulfs the audience on songs like "Sympathy for the Devil" and the rare Muddy Waters' classic "Champagne and Reefer," for which blues icon Buddy Guy trades choruses. In one hilarious clip, Jagger gets out of a helicopter, after just being released from jail on drug charges, to walk across an English estate lawn for a group discussion with a clergyman and other community pillars. Like a schoolhouse rebel being brought before a British PTA meeting, Jagger revels in the negative attention. After all, he knows something that they never will--utter liberation through rock 'n' roll. One look at Shine a Light and you can see how the Rolling Stones eclipse every other rock act around. This could just be the most intimate concert experience you could have, even if you were at the show.

Rated PG-13, 122 min. (A+)

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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