Scorsese Shines a Light on 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 clips, 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 band performing a slew of timeless favorites and a few lesser known songs. Buddy Guy, Jack Black, and Christina Aguilera make memorable 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 as he drives the band to the far reaches of sonic precision. 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.

On a cold Sunday at Manhattan's Palace Hotel, Martin Scorsese, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts joined a throng of anxious journalists so we could pepper them with questions. Needless to say, Marty and the Stones looked marvelous, laughed a lot, and cracked wise to everyone's delight.

Q: Marty, why was it important for you to make Shine a Light in a small venue in your native Manhattan.

Martin Scorsese: We discussed doing it at a bigger arena and I looked into that, and actually while I was doing it, I began to realize I think I'm better suited to try to capture the group on a small stage--more for the intimacy of the group and the way they play together. You see the band work together and work each song. I found that to be interesting and more than interesting, it's just a compulsion of mine. I love to be able to see that and be able to cut from one image to the other-movement--that sort of thing, but really about the intimacy of the group and how they work together.

For me it was literally the moments when you can see the band working together. All the songs--it's like a narrative, a story, and the whole sound of the band is like a character, one character in each song. With the grace of these wonderful cinematographers, headed by Bob Richardson, and people like Bob Ellsworth and Ellen Cass and Bob Toll and Leslie, who did "Lord of the Rings," Edgar Rollins-- they were like poets at times--knowing exactly when to move that camera to pick up a member of the band. We shot this in 35mm, not video, so we had 10-minute loads, and cameras were going down all the time, running out of film, so another camera would pick up where someone left off. That's why there were so many, to be able to pick up the slack. But the key was to find the moments between the members of the band and how they work together. It's like a machine, its own entity during each song.

Q: Keith, did you find anything special about the Beacon Theater?

Keith Richards: The Beacon Theater is special. It wraps around--especially if you're going to play there for more than one night--the room sort of wraps its arms around you, and every night it's warmer. It's a great feeling room, and also, this band didn't start off in stadiums (chuckles).

Q: I understand this is going to be available both on regular screens and also on IMAX. I was wondering how that experience would be different for the fans.

Mick Jagger: It will be very larger (laughter). The funny thing really is that Marty, after looking at all the options, decided that he wanted to make this small, intimate movie and I said, "Well, the laugh is Marty that in the end it's going to be blown up to this huge IMAX thing, so the intimate moment is shown in IMAX." But it looks good in IMAX. We've got both formats, so we're happy with that.

Q: What vitamins do you take and what's your workout like to do this.

Mick Jagger: God! (laughter) You can forget about that.

Keith Richards: (If we tell you) you'll all be on it. (laughter)

Mick Jagger: No gym, no vitamins--just do it, just get out there and yeah ... you get very pressurized in these situations. The thing I always find is that when it's a movie shoot, you really have to come up to the plate, and fortunately, we had two nights. As Keith was saying, it's good to play there more than one night and I agree with him, because the first night we played it was more like a rehearsal for us in a way. Because we played lots of small theaters in the past, we hadn't done it on this tour, so this was quite different to suddenly go into this small theater. By the second night, we knew how to sort of do it.

Keith Richards: But it was a turn on.

Mick Jagger: Yeah. (laughs)

Q: For Marty, with the world of the mafia being featured in so many of your films, can you make some comparisons to working with the Stones? (laughter)

Martin Scorsese: Uh, well, no. I don't think I can make any direct associations to it, but the music is something that reminds me of when I went to see Three Penny Opera back in 1959-1960, and how the music affected me and what that play said. The lyrics were so important to me, that particular play. I found I grew up in an area that was in a sense like the Three Penny Opera, and I think at times the Rolling Stones' music had a similar effect on me. It dealt with aspects of the life that was growing up around me that I was associated with or saw or was experiencing and trying to make sense of. So it was tougher -- it had an edge, beautiful and honest and brutal at times and powerful, and it's always stayed with me and become a well of inspiration to this day. As Mick said in Berlin. He said, "I want you to know that Shine a Light is the only film (of mine) that Gimme Shelter is not played in. (laughter) And when I use Gimme Shelter in a film, which I think is just as apropos of the world we're living in today, I don't remember that I used it before. I say, "Well, let's do that" and they say, "Well, Marty you did it before." And I go, "Well, it's alright." I keep forgetting, but it's something that the music has been very important to me over these years.

Q. Mick, which of Marty's films is your favorite?

Mick Jagger: Kundun's one of my favorites. (Scorsese laughs)

That's not a joke. (laughter) (to Martin) Did you do that one?

Martin Scorsese: I did do it, yes (laughter)

Mick Jagger: I love all of them. It's hard to choose your favorite. I love nearly all of Marty's movies and I can't wait for the next one.

Q: In your latest film The Departed, "Gimme Shelter" has been in other films but you used "Let It Loose" which is a little bit more obscure song, one of my favorites from Exile on Main Street. What made you pick that and for your future films will you pick more obscure songs?

Martin Scorsese: Well, for me, I think it's from Exile isn't it? Exile on Main Street is an album I like a lot, and that again is sort of in my DNA so to speak. It just came the way Jack Nicholson sat down next to Leonardo DiCaprio and said, "Do you know who I am?" The tone of that and the mood I found ... I heard that sound from that song, and I played it against it. I tried a couple of other things afterwards, because invariably, you say "That's the first one; It works but it can't be that easy. Working on the first try can't be that way." So we tried some other songs, but we went back to "Let It Loose," and placed it just at the right moment in between the dialogue for the highlights of the song. It had the tone and the mood and the edge that the scene had -- and what the characters were like really.

Q: Does Mick always pick the set list for you guys?

Keith Richards: Mick always comes up with the set list because he's got to sing them. Unless I say suddenly, "Mick, you've got ten songs in the same key" I don't interfere because the man's got to sing them.

Q: Who chose the documentary clips?

Martin Scorsese: Who chose the clips? Dave Tedeschi's the editor of the film, and we worked together almost 10 months. The music came together rather quickly in the cutting. That was very enjoyable. The hardest part was putting together the clips. I think Dave had over 400 hours of archival footage, and then he chose about 40 hours for me to see. And then we worked from that 40 hours and it was a matter of balancing--saying something but not saying too much and then saying nothing with it. That was the key, and balancing it so it wouldn't unbalance the music in the piece. To do a film of all archival footage I think would be a four-or five-hour documentary.

Mick Jagger: There were some moments when I thought the archival footage was going too long and I felt we were going off into another movie and not at a concert. Because it was really kind of riveting sometimes, those old movies, but then if it goes on too long you want to come back to the concert stage. Sometimes David left them a little bit on the long side, so in the end we ended up with what we had, which was good.

Q: Can you talk about your relationship with Buddy Guy?

Mick Jagger: We've done quite a few shows with Buddy Guy in the past. I think we've known him off and on for quite a long time. He's one of those continually wonderful blues performers.

Keith Richards: We met him through Muddy Waters, he goes back a long way.

Mick Jagger: I think the thing that Martin captured, the duet thing that we did with him, was really one of the high points of the movie for me.

Keith Richards: I didn't give him my guitar for nothing, man.

Mick Jagger: And I think all the guests, in slightly different ways, add to the movie. I like all the duets very much, they really all work. And they don't always work--those duets.

Q: I noticed Al Hazleton in a few of the shots. How impacted were you my earlier Stones films?

Martin Scorsese: Al sort of referenced the line of continuity with a number of wonderful films he made with the Rolling Stones. We went back to Gimme Shelter and Hal Ashby's Let's Spend the Night Together and the Godard.

Keith Richards: Don't forget Cocksucker Blues.

Martin Scorsese: And Cocksucker Blues. But in the Godard film you actually see the song "Sympathy for the Devil" come together in the recording studio, which is fascinating. This is a direct reference to the past films, yeah.

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