SHINE A LIGHT marks a significant point in the careers of its director, Martin Scorsese, and its subjects, The Rolling Stones, by bringing their big screen projects full circle. Scorsese got his start working on concert films, notably as an editor on WOODSTOCK, and one of his most celebrated films, THE LAST WALTZ, made early in his career and detailing The Band's farewell show, is generally considered the gold-standard for concert docs. The Stones, meanwhile, have a forty-plus-year romance with cameras and solidifying their presence on celluloid. Apart from either Mick Jagger or Keith Richards appearing in acting roles, the band has been the subject of several other concert films, notably Albert and David Maysles' GIMME SHELTER and Hal Ashby's underappreciated effort LET'S SPEND THE NIGHT TOGETHER. SHINE A LIGHT is a significant document of artists who, in the twilight of their years, continue to astonish, amaze, and excite us.
Opening with a brief introductory sequence that is half-fiction, half-truth, director Martin Scorsese is attempting to get everything together for the show, but is having trouble with figuring out which songs he should prepare shot lists and camera positions for, as well as trying to come to terms with nothing being settled until the Stones are in the Beacon Theater rehearsing. Following this sequence, the film goes pretty much uninterrupted concert mode, providing footage from some spectacular performances of many classics and underplayed songs alike, and all of it is pretty thrilling. Interspersed with the concert footage, which was taken from two dates played in New York at the Beacon Theater (exclusively for this film and Bill Clinton's birthday, I might add), is some archival footage of interviews which Scorsese uses to periodically comment on the proceedings, and to give a general idea of how the Rolling Stones have evolved over the past half a century from a new band in the 60s to become "The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band."
The concert itself makes up the bulk of the film, and it's beautiful. It may be the most detailed coverage of a live performance ever, with every single possible angle covered and shot. With the help of cinematographer Robert Richardson, Scorsese has assembled the absolute best cinematographers in the world to shoot this show. Just check out this list of names and credits: Mitchel Amundsen (TRANSFORMERS, WANTED), Stuart Dryburgh (LONE STAR, THE PIANO), David Dunlap (SHAUN OF THE DEAD), Robert Elswit (BOOGIE NIGHTS, SYRIANA, THERE WILL BE BLOOD), Ellen Kuras (ETERNAL SUNSHINE..., HE GOT GAME), Andrew Lesnie (LORD OF THE RINGS, BABE), Emmanuel Lubezki (CHILDREN OF MEN, ALI, A LITTLE PRINCESS), Anastas Nachos (MAN ON THE MOON), Declan Quinn (IN AMERICA, LEAVING LAS VEGAS), and John Toll (BRAVEHEART, ALMOST FAMOUS.) I mention all of these names not because it merely excites me to see all of them working together toward such a magnificent end, or to simply wow you with their credits, but instead to point out that SHINE A LIGHT is a landmark film that is completely invested in the Rolling Stones of here and now, dedicated to capturing the live performance as absolutely no one else could possibly capture it, and the use of such big-name talent is one of the reasons SHINE A LIGHT is completely successful in this regard.
The songs are varied, and thankfully the band plays a lot of lesser-known work, including a great version of the song "Connection" and a cover of "Champagne and Reefer" with special guest Buddy Guy. One of the best moments in the movie is when Keith Richards, who turns 65 this year, is playing with Guy, and is clearly in awe of even inhabiting the same space as one of his idols. For all of his personal clout and status, it's touching to see Richards be so humble in this way. And when the song is over, and Keith gives Buddy Guy his guitar to take with him, it's the most resonant scene of emotional honesty I've seen in any movie this year so far. The interviews are fantastic little snippets, with all of my favorites being of Charlie Watts. Very early in the film, as the stage is being constructed and the lights are being tested, Watts walks up and sees all the extremely bright lights and asks, "Those are movie stuff?" The reply he gets is someone asking how he feels about them to which he says, "I like movies. ...Watching them."
Perhaps the most important thing the movie does is show that the Stones are not ready to quit any more than Scorsese is. All in their 60s, the band and the director are as spry and entertaining as anyone half their age is lucky to be. The way Jagger prances and dances around the stage - nonstop throughout the entire show - has long ago stopped being an act, and it's captivating. And they all know how to play for a camera, particularly Scorsese, whose own legacy of presenting himself in nonfiction films, often of his own production, is as much a part of SHINE A LIGHT as the concert itself. So, it's fitting that the film is not as in-depth or probing as NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN. The main thing is that this is a film about now, about urgency, and about the need to keep doing what you love, whether it's making movies, or being the greatest rock band in the world.