So Martin Scorsese has made two concert films now — 1978′s “The Last Waltz” and 2008′s “Shine a Light,” — and it’s interesting to compare the two.
“The Last Waltz” featured The Band playing their last concert ever, deciding it was time to move on and going out with a bang, while “Shine a Light” shows The Rolling Stones, contemporaries of The Band, hanging in there with a vengeance. While The Band made a graceful exit, The Stones attempt to prove that time can stop; acting and sounding (although not looking) exactly like they did in 1978.
In this sense, they do deserve to be icons for their boomer generation, by absolutely refusing to act their age. Mick Jagger, a grandfather, sings “Brown sugar, why does it taste so good? / Just like a young girl should,” with no sense of dirty-old-manning it. Yes, it’s a slightly absurd spectacle, but there’s something admirable about such mad persistence.
Anybody over the age of 40 will look at Jagger, all svelte and preening doing his chicken-walk, and feel a twinge of jealousy. Anyone who’s ever had a substance-abuse problem will look at Keith Richards and marvel that he’s still alive. And anyone who’s ever gone through a rocky relationship will be amazed that these guys (well, minus Bill Wyman) can still be in the same room together, particularly given Jagger’s advanced stage of control-freakery.
Not that the movie delves into any of this, as “End of the Century” (2003) did to The Ramones. No, Scorsese is a fan, and a big one too, and his goal is simply to capture the golden-years Stones in all their glory.
Scorsese gives a brief setup to the 2006 Clinton Foundation benefit concert at NYC’s Beacon Theatre (which is actually two shows edited down to look like one), and we see the director pleading for a set-list in the runup to the show, and Jagger repeatedly yanking his chain. It’s a bit intended to show that The Stones’ rebellious streak is alive and well, a dubious proposition given the fact that they run ubercapitalist megaprofit-making tours that most MBAs would kill to dream up.
All that history of drug-taking and debauchery — such as an alleged incident involving a naked Marianne Faithful and a candy bar, and Richards’ replacing all the blood in his body with transfusions so he could prove to U.S. authorities that he was clean of heroin . . . and now the band is playing for an audience of brokers and preppies and — quelle horreur — politicians! (Though they do stock the front row with babes.)
Much the same can be said of Scorsese, the edgy, speedy freak who once provided such cinematic hand grenades as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” or even “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Like The Stones, his work on “Shine a Light” shows edge replaced with showmanship, inspiration giving way to craft (which could be said of “The Departed” and “The Aviator” as well).
The great irony here is that Scorsese was up to his eyeballs in cocaine in the days he hung with The Band, but “The Last Waltz” looks like a modicum of restraint compared to the restless, wired way he cuts “Shine A Light.” It’s like Scorsese feels a need to draw as much attention to his artistry as he does to The Stones’, and while the director is every bit as much a maestro, he’s trying too hard.
The camera angle changes every other freaking beat, and I’d bet that no shot was held for more than five seconds. Even worse, the director engages in all sorts of show-offy tricks: Every time the camera zooms in on Richards, the volume on the guitar goes up on the soundtrack, as if we were hearing it from Keith’s perspective. But that’s just a cheat: Richards is yards away from his amp, and certainly hearing a well-balanced mix from his front-stage monitors.
The big question, of course, is how good is the performance? The Stones are consummate performers, and they know how to work a crowd, but the actual chops displayed would be pretty ordinary if they didn’t have a catalog of massive hits to work with. (And note the set-list is surprisingly “Some Girls” heavy.)
Sure, Jagger prances athletically around the stage like he’s the reincarnation of a 22-year-old James Brown, but listen to his voice on, say, “Tumbling Dice”: He’s barking the lyrics, with no tone or sustain or pitch, simply because he’s all out of breath from playing the monkey man. (And modern audiences’ predilection for stage antics is why so many bands have turned to lip-syncing, the ’90s Stones allegedly among them.) He sounds good on some tracks — “Just My Imagination” and “Loving Cup” — but his rendition of “As Tears Go By” just kills that song, as he barks out the chorus (“I-zit-ant-watch”) with some strange, Hitlerian enunciation.
The same can be said of the guitar playing, whether it’s Richards or guest guitarist Buddy Guy: The leads are aimless, with no beginning or end, and phrases are left half-finished, with more emphasis on looking cool playing them. (Ron Wood, for his part, is way more about the playing.)
This would have been a much better film if made 30 years ago. Are The Rolling Stones still, as their hype has it, “The world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band”? Only if you don’t get out much. The Stones have left us with a great catalog of songs, but judging from “Shine a Light,” their live set feels more like a shadow of past glories.