Despite Mick Jagger’s lively prancing—his energetic frontmannery—a Rolling Stones concert is above all a sonic affair, rather than a visual event. A concert film, then, would seem pretty straightforward, at best: something to hear, but not much to look at—the sort of thing that goes straight to DVD or PBS.
Martin Scorsese, however, through his ever-moving concert cam, manages to make Shine a Light both. Through fast-paced editing and vigorous camera movement, Scorsese and his team imbue the par for the course proceedings with palpable energy, without ever lapsing into cheap concert-movie cliché. (There are no canted shots of Keith Richards from below, for example.) The Rolling Stones may be commanding showmen, but on a screen they would be little more than clownish, costumed dinosaurs without Scorsese, who understands how to translate their performing prowess to film. (See: the Bridges to Babylon DVD.) Together, the two are a hell of an entertaining pair. Shine a Light doesn’t so much provide a “you are there” experience as a distinct experience all its own; it’s not just a document, but a living document—a loud, dizzying and overwhelming experience of pure cinema, all shaky close-ups and dancing tracking shots.
Coordinating such a complexly choreographed film was no easy task, logistically and otherwise, Scorsese is sure to let us know. The first fifteen minutes are dedicated to the concert and the film’s arrangements, a choppy and comical behind the scenes/making of—a special feature built into the film—in which Scorsese and Jagger risibly butt heads. Making a movie is tough! Especially when it involves a neurotic New Yorker dealing with easygoing, non-committal burnouts. Finally, someone tries to explain it to Scorsese: “this is rock n’ roll.”
Those first 15 minutes are about all the back-stage/offstage footage we get, distinguishing Shine a Light from its most obvious antecedent, 1978’s The Last Waltz, in which Scorsese spends a good deal of film interviewing the Band and watching them shoot pool or jam. But why waste time, Scorsese’s and the Stones’, shooting B-roll with a band that has decades worth in the vaults? Every two or three songs, Scorsese punctuates the concert (two concerts actually, at the Beacon Theater in Fall 2006) with archival interview footage that superficially fills in the Stones’ backstory, usually some ironic clip of an interviewer asking a question along the lines of, “how long do you fellas think you can keep this up?”
A long time, obviously! All yuks aside, that’s the point—the Rolling Stones are old but the band still sounds tight, demonstrating the sort of fine-tuned collaboration that gets honed over 45 years on the road, and Jagger is still as limber as a teenager. Not only that, but the boys, even if they’re mugging a bit for the conspicuous cameras, give off the feeling that they genuinely love one another, that they have a blast doing what they do and doing it together. That seems a rare enough occurrence—“the rock n’ roll band that didn’t break up,” as rare as two people staying married for 50 years—as to warrant a filmic record. In the end, Shine a Light is a celebration of perseverance from a long-working director who only recently got his best director Oscar—a tribute to doing what you love for as long as you can still do it. In the Rolling Stones, Scorsese has found himself, despite their superficial dissimilarities.