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Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Paramount Vantage)

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Thursday, April 03, 2008



Shine a Light
Directed by Martin Scorsese
(Paramount Vantage)

Reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin

Little known fact: Martin Scorsese likes the Rolling Stones. He’s even used their songs in a few of his films. And when he lazily slapped “Gimme Shelter” yet again on top of a montage sequence in The Departed, he all but officially certified them co-authors of his trademarked brand of rock-scored violence. But directing a concert movie of Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie in sexagenarian action? The marriage might sound perfect on paper, but, lest we forget, both Scorsese and the Stones are well past their respective primes, and any such collaboration, no matter how thrilling at the level of inevitable consummation, should be warily and skeptically received.

Where the maverick director and the debauched band were once genuine artistic threats to conventional values and attitudes in using their substantial leverage in the entertainment industry to directly challenge it, they are now simply team players, content to coast on rebellious reputations despite long, dry droughts of actually vital work. Shine a Light — Scorsese’s first concert movie since the legendary 1978 farewell to the Band, The Last Waltz — may be a professionally rendered document, stitching together two Stones benefits at New York City’s Beacon Theater in 2006 for the Clinton Foundation into a single live show, but in many ways it’s also an unintentional funeral dance commemorating the vanished vitality and subversive potential of mainstream rock ’n’ roll and celebrating its current utility as a nostalgic anodyne.

At one time the Stones constituted a band that could with relative ease navigate the top of the pops and the crustiest of the counterculture. If cinematic representations are any measure, consider that between 1968 and 1972 the lads from London allowed Jean-Luc Godard access to their studio sessions for the director’s abrasive revolutionary screed One Plus One; orchestrated the End of the Sixties at the Altamont tragedy as captured in the Maysles Brothers’ epochal Gimme Shelter; and participated in a tour film, the notorious Cocksucker Blues, so depraved and ugly that the band sued to have it impossible to screen without experimental filmmaker Robert Frank’s presence. Since then, it’s been mostly straightforward concert films without a hint of decadence or danger (Let’s Spend the Night Together, At the MAX), an accurate reflection of the post-Seventies Stones.

Scorsese has used Stones tunes in four of his fiction films, but not coincidentally these films were all either made during the Seventies or else possessed stories taking place in that era. Shine a Light’s change of time period is part of what makes it such a depressing experience — in a contemporary live context the classics which Scorsese (and many, many others, including this reviewer) so love come off as museum relics and not the raunchy, boozy rockers they were back in the day. Yeah, the band can still play, the song selections offer a few surprises (early on we briefly see Jagger holding a list of Scorsese’s suggested picks — was he the one who lobbied for the pleasingly large number of Exile on Main Street cuts?), and Jagger’s swivels and struts can put most frontmen one-third his age to shame. But a Stones show now pays tribute to their previous social and cultural impact without enacting any in the present.

The environment of the Beacon concert, from the A Bigger Bang tour, is as telling as the lack of any songs written later than their 1983 album Undercover — hobnobbing with former presidents (Bill introduces the Stones, Hillary in tow) and playing for a crowd of record industry executives, neo-yuppies and prominently positioned, cellphone camera-toting models, the band has created the kind of safe cocoon an aging dues-paid group can only be expected to encase itself in. Scorsese vainly attempts to inject some drama into the corporate proceedings by taking us behind the scenes as the band and director’s camps try to get on the same page while preparing for the shows. Supposedly the positioning of cameras and the order of the set list are in doubt up to the minute the Stones go onstage, but the needlessly fragmented and rushed editing of this overture reeks of manufactured chaos, not the real thing.

Scorsese seems to realize he’s filmed not history in the making here but history in the endlessly and lucratively touring. Compare the way he perfectly intercuts original interviews of the Band into the Last Waltz show with the sloppy and unilluminating archive footage culled in Shine a Light to show how far the band’s come since their days as outlaws arrested for drug possession, etc. Scorsese cheaply aims for time capsule novelty (young Mick thinks the band is good for only another year! If only he knew!) and in the process condescendingly embalms the Stones’ former energy and menace in an attitude of “that spirit was for a different, more naïve time.” (In the film’s most egregious moment he even interrupts a rare performance of the brilliant and overlooked Between the Buttons gem “Connection” by letting a recent Richards/Wood interview play right through it. Granted, the Stones themselves use the song to bide time, with Richards taking over vocal duties, so Jagger can enter through the concert hall doors for the start of “Sympathy for the Devil,” but this is nonetheless criminal.)

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