The Rolling Stones are one of the most documented bands in rock ‘n’ roll. A quick glance at IMDB has them headlining no fewer than a dozen documentaries and concert films, including an IMAX extravaganza. They’ve contributing to over 100 soundtracks and both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have appeared on the big screen in acting roles. From their infancy the band has never met a camera they didn’t like and as a result it is possible to follow their progression from young blooze singing Turks to rock ‘n’ roll royalty while literally watching the wrinkles around Mick Jagger’s mouth and eyes blossom.
With such a wealth of archival footage already available the first question you ask when presented with a new concert film from the band is “Why?” Even with a director like Martin Scorsese behind the camera isn’t this simply an exercise in repetition?
The answer is yes and no, depending on your level of commitment to the ageless appeal of The Rolling Stones. If The Beatles were more your bag then Shine A Light will seem little more than a retread of the band’s greatest hits. If, however, you buy into the “greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band Ever” mantra the movie will be a chance to see a classic group, while maybe not exactly aging gracefully, at least proving that collecting a social security check doesn’t mean you still can’t rock the rafters.
Shot at New York’s Beacon Theatre in fall of 2006, the movie documents a two night stand in honor of Bill Clinton’s sixtieth birthday. The set list may seem familiar; Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Start Me Up, Brown Sugar and no less than four tunes from Some Girls get dusted off, but it isn’t so much the songs as how the band plays the songs that impresses.
Forty plus years after their first gigs you don’t expect to hear the kind of raucous commitment to the music on display here. Jagger, who must have the smallest buttocks in the business, is as frenetically fey here as he was at his androgynous heyday in 1972. Watching him brought to mind a quote from Performance, his acting debut. “You’re a comical little geezer,” Chaz (James Fox) says to Jagger. “You’ll look funny when you’re fifty.” Bang on brother, but he’s still as compelling a front man as rock ‘n’ roll has ever produced.
Old dog Keith Richards prowls the stage, cigarette clenched in his teeth, guitar weaving effortlessly with second stringer Ronnie Wood. Because these two have been playing off one another for so long it is easy to forget how magical it can sound when they are in sync.
As a document of the Stones in the 21st century Shine a Light does a stylish job at presenting them as an impressive live band, but little else. It’s odd that Scorsese, whose Last Waltz is considered one of the great rock ‘n’ roll films of all time and whose Dylan doc elevated the music biography to epic proportions, didn’t seize the chance to provide some insight into the band or perhaps attempt to provide some social context. (Also odd is the exclusion of Gimme Shelter, a song Scorsese has used in three films, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed, but is conspicuously absent here.)
As it is it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s OK, it’s really good rock ‘n’ roll, but as a document of the group it doesn’t have the depth or support the repeated viewings of earlier Stones’ films like 1970’s Gimme Shelter. The newer, more unique material in the form of duets with a variety of musicians, ranges from the exciting Jack White / Jagger’s double teaming of Loving Cup, to classic a blast of blues from Buddy Guy to a downright creepy dirty dancing routine between Jagger and Xtina Aguilera, who is almost four decades his junior.
In the end Shine a Light is a completely unnecessary film, unless you are a Stones fan or need to be reminded of why Keith Richards is the coolest guitar slinger in rock ‘n’ roll history.