Written by: Ron Bricker
Notes from a Crank
Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones IMAX extravaganza, Shine A Light, opened last Friday, and I was lucky enough to be one of the 1000 or so people in LA crammed into the only two theaters in town playing the film. As expected, I enjoyed it . Also as expected, the audience was full of douchebags–but that’s a story for another time.
Despite the band’s desire to be immortalized at one of their typical stadium shows, luckily Marty was able to convince them to add two performances to their A Bigger Bang tour in a smaller, more intimate venue–New York City’s historic, 2800-seat Beacon Theater. The theater was a beautiful backdrop–well-aided by the set designed and built by Marty’s crew–although it certainly could have been filled with a livelier, less-handpicked, less-moneyed, more-representative audience. Let’s see…the front row just happened to contain only upper-class females aged 21-30? Are you kidding? Did you think we wouldn’t notice, Marty? The LA Times referred to these ladies as “a cluster of hedge-fund hotties front and center.” Truth. The men in the crowd, standing back a bit, giving the ladies their space, lest they be tasered by Scorsese’s militant PAs, were all chubby banker-types holding aloft cell phone cameras all night long. Why watch a once-in-a-lifetime concert when you can get low-grade video of it on your phone?! It’s not like Scorsese’s shooting it in IMAX or anything…
Speaking of cinematography, it was lush and intimate, as you would imagine, albeit too reliant on extreme close-ups of Jagger’s oh-so-British 64-year-old teeth, and too afraid to linger on wide shots and two-shots. My favorite shots in the film were the two-shots of Mick and Keith and the wide shots of the band, and they were far too brief and far too few. I also would have liked to have seen more of drummer Charlie Watts pounding away, and some longer close-ups of the guitar fingering during the instrumental portions. Shots of the audience should have been scrapped entirely, in this case, as they were distracting and immediately deflated the energy of the performance, due to the energy/quality of the crowd. Had Scorsese/Jagger decided to pack the place with a Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus sort of crowd, then I would definitely have wanted to see them; however, it was not, and so I didn’t–my imagination would have served me far better than reality, in this instance.
The sound was killer and the set-list was great; I can actually imagine myself buying the soundtrack, which I’ve only done twice in my life–Dumb and Dumber, when I was 16 with money to burn, and Storytelling, because it was essentially a Belle and Sebastian album. There is no way Mick could have chosen a set-list that would have made everybody happy, as the Stones catalog is simply too vast; this being the case, I thought he was successful in his approach to give the crowd some of the hits, some of the lesser-known stuff, and a few well-chosen covers.
I loved Jack White’s duet with Mick. I don’t think there is a musician alive today that would have been a better choice to play with the Stones, as Jack is the heart-and-soul of blues-influenced rock and roll. Blues legend Buddy Guy was also great to see up there and it was a treat to watch him, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood jam together, but I was shocked they didn’t let him have a solo–Buddy can play the guitar better with his teeth than 90% of working guitarists out there can do with their hands. Christina Aguilera was woefully out of place on stage with the Stones during her number–girl’s got pipes, for sure, but I don’t care. I don’t want to see her out there with the Stones, just like my jaw would drop if Celine Dion or Mariah Carey had strutted out; she has nothing to do with either the blues or rock and roll. The worst part? She got a solo. Ouch. And, just to rub it in, Mick grooved all up on her, but didn’t lay a finger on Jack or Buddy–come now, Micky-baby, play fair!
Despite their advanced age and scarily-skeletal faces, the band performed well and, with the glaring exception of silver-haired, mild-mannered bookstore manager Charlie Watts, still managed to look the part of rock stars. Mick was skinny as ever, somehow still possessed the energy of a teenage coke-head, and even though he brought in two back-up singers to hit the high notes for him, I thought his voice held up well. I must admit, though, I was sometimes reminded of scary, nearly-as-old, gravelly-voiced New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, who counts Jagger among his early influences. I’d like to see the two do a number together someday. Any takers out their in promoter-ville? Keith was as charming as ever, loving every second of it as if it was the first time, and hitting his guitar licks like clockwork, more because his heart beats in time with the blues than his brain remembers the notes (I can’t say the same for his vocals, although they were charmingly off-key, off-beat). Charlie Watts was firmly in the background of the film, represented mostly by the hilarious footage of his younger self and his ‘oh boy, I’m an old man trying to do a teenager’s job’ weary-eyed looks to the camera in the present day.
I thought the footage of the Stones from the early years was brilliantly used to break up the would-be monotony of the concert, as well as to put their enduring success in perspective. Mick, Keith, and Charlie–the only three members left from the early days (Ronnie Wood joined in 1974, after founding-guitarist Brian Jones was fired and then his replacement Mick Taylor left the band; bassist Bill Wyman left the band in 1993)–all came across as innocent, charming, honest, funny, and wise. Contrasting their younger faces, words, and deeds with their current performance, it was not hard to see why/how they have endured–they have always done it for the love of the music, and they have always wanted to do it until they can’t do it anymore.
Although I did like the idea of warming up the audience with some pre-concert action, I wish Marty would not have felt the need to thrust himself into the picture with a long, drawn-out, ultimately pointless opening about how hard it is to shoot a concert video. Why make excuses before you even begin? Did he feel the need to start Raging Bull with a five-minute sequence on how hard it was to shoot the movie, in case nobody liked it? (The answer is ‘no,’ although who knows, maybe his producer nixed the idea–“too expensive!”). I would rather have just watched the band’s arrival, heard some interesting snippets of pre-show dialogue, and then seen part of the sound-check. Watching Marty whine repeatedly about not having the set-list, and then finally receiving it in an obviously-staged moment immediately before the lights went up, was embarrassingly bad–it was something Bruce Filanch would have done before a Billy Crystal-hosted Oscars ceremony, not a bit that should go in a Scorsese film. Especially because he shot this concert TWICE, and could easily rub out any kinks the second time around (indeed, most of the footage is from the second performance). I cringed for him–Marty wants so much to be loved, but sometimes he doth try too hard.
The most aggravating Marty moment, however, came at the very end, when the audience watches him directing a camera movement, instead of seeing Mick Jagger & Co.’s explosive exit into the Manhattan night. WTF, Marty? Do you think people forget what you look like or something? Why are you trying, in your later years, to so desperately ‘get yourself out there?’ Just keep being you, keep making great movies, and we will love you. Don’t suddenly try to imitate cameo-master Alfred Hitchcock or self-promote a la Brett Ratner. We love Marty for being Marty, just like we will always love the Stones for being the Stones–the best rock and roll band in the world. Still.
Goodtime Charlie gives Shine A Light a B+, his highest grade of the year so far. Go see it!
To read about Goodtime Charlie’s experience at a Rolling Stones concert in 2005, click here.