A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #14


2008, PG-13, 122 mins.

With Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts, Buddy Guy, Christina Aguilera, Jack White and Bill Clinton.

A documentary directed by Martin Scorsese.

SHINE  A LIGHT is one of the great movie going experiences; it’s a work that successfully highlights the variety, longevity, and greatness of The Rolling Stones, not to mention that it reveals its chief architect, director Martin Scorsese, having supreme command over their concert images.  

This is a marriage made in the combined heavens of film and music lovers:  We have “The Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band in the World” and, it could be easily argued, the greatest living American director at the helm.  The end result of that perfect equation is two hours of unbridled energy, vitality, and showmanship from those in front of and behind the camera.  It’s simply one of the most dazzling and fully immersing concert documentaries that I’ve ever seen. 

Scorsese is no stranger to filming rock docs.  He did, after all, direct what has been hailed as the preeminent concert film of all-time in 1978’s THE LAST WALTZ, which in turn chronicled the November 1976 concert of The Band.  That film was initially supposed to be shot in 16mm, but Scorsese opted to use seven 35mm cameras and insisted that the film be done as a large-scale production.  That aesthetic essence can be felt through every pore of SHINE A LIGHT.  Working with editor David Tedeschi and a relative all-star team of some of the best cinematographers working today, Scorsese paints an extraordinary canvas of the Stones’ larger than life on stage personas.  His team - which includes head cinematographer Robert Richardson along with nine others that include multiple Oscar winners and nominees - makes SHINE A LIGHT  a breathtaking tour de force of sights and sounds where Scorsese's esoteric fingerprints can easily be seen.   

Oh…and you get to see the Stones perform.  Not bad. 

I’ve seen countless concert films and one of my main criticisms is that you never felt like the film version could ever substitute for the live experience.  I think that SHINE A LIGHT may be the first to contradict that sentiment.  Instead of using static and comatose medium and wide shots in combination with the obligatory close ups, Scorsese films this concert with startling immediacy, vigor, and potency.  The camera is rarely listless; instead, he uses his set ups to swoop in and out, up and down, and around the performers to foster that seemingly intangible in-the-moment sensation of escapism.  No doubt, when the very first strings of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” can be heard and Scorsese (whom appears in the film) yells at his operators “go,” you can feel the intensity and vivaciousness of this whole enterprise.  The rest of the film never lets this initially feeling of giddy  excitement run dry. 

The concert in question documents two 2006 performances by the Stones that took place during their “A Bigger Bang Tour” at New York’s cozy and intimate Beacon Theatre (well chosen by Scorsese; a larger venue that included spectators of tens of thousands might have been difficult to pull of as effectively as this).  Much as he did in THE LAST WALTZ, Scorsese infuses himself in the proceedings in SHINE A LIGHT and almost becomes one of the film’s most compelling side characters.  In the prologue (shot in grainy black and white footage), we see the Stones traveling from venue to venue and witness Mick Jagger’s constant indecision about most of the specifics of the Beacon show: He is shown scornfully chastising a concept artist's proposed stage decorating mock up, not to mention that he can’t seem to decide what songs to play and in what order.  This, of course, drives the directorial control freak in Scrosese batty as he is back in New York and desperately trying to make sense of everything.  To many lesser directors, the choice of song order might not be relevant, but not for Scorsese as he sees camera shots and specific lighting moods for each number.  What seems to be clear is that the concert in SHINE A LIGHT may have been choreographed by the director and his legion of cinematographers in a painstaking manner, but they also could have been doing everything by the seat of the pants.   

There is also some well timed bits of sarcastic humor thrown in here for good measure:  We see a conference call between Jagger and Scorsese where he tries to tell the singer why moving cameras would not be the audience distraction that Jagger fears they’re going to be.  We also have a funny bit where a stage hand says that any light on Jagger will cause him to “burn up”, to which Scorsese responds, “Do you mean flaming?  ‘Cause we don’t want to burn Mick Jagger.”  

After all of these brief introductory scenes and garish hand held footage the film breaks loose with abandon and SHINE A LIGHT explodes on the screen in a techno-audio-visual nirvana.  Scorsese and company bathes the screen image with every shot: nothing is left to waste.  What’s interesting here is how the camera does not move or work itself around the performances by the Stones, but rather with the performances to the point where the two entities feel intertwined.  The cinematography is lush, colorful, and ethereally gorgeous at times (look at one shot in particular late in the film when Jagger emerges from a door from behind the audience basked in red light or many moments where the constant smoke from Keith Richards’ cigarettes frames his face and body with the seductiveness of a film noir).  The camera, especially when fixated on Jagger, is never still, which is highly appropriate considering the singer’s sinewy limbs flailing around with boundless enthusiasm and hedonistic joviality.  With Scorsese on deck, you don’t simply just watch Jagger; you feel his passion and limitless stamina and dynamism.   

Then there are simple shots, like one that closes in on drummer Charlie Watts after one grueling number, where he looks into camera, gasps for some air, and appears like he has just run a marathon (you can almost sense him saying to himself, “I’m getting too old for this!").  Some moments even have tenderness about them:  Look at one duet with Keith Richards and Jagger sharing a microphone (the two have a youthful camaraderie that they have carried since their school days friendship).  There are also sequences that crank the tempo down, for good measure, especially during two of my favorite numbers in the film.  The first is Jagger, assisted by Buddy Guy, singing “Cigarrettes and Reefer” (Scorsese holds a few shots on Guy’s face that are trancelike) and a rare Richards solo, “You’ve Got the Silver.”  His words to fans after he finishes are priceless: He stops, cracks a sly, mischievous grin, and mutters, “Cool, eh?” 

Amidst all of this sumptuous concert visuals Scorsese splices in some archival footage of the band throughout their careers.  Nothing here generally digs too deep, but there are some moments that are subtlety revealing.  There is one instance where a very young Jagger states that he thinks the Stones will only continue on for “another year or so” and years later, during a 70’s interview, he cryptically - and self-deprecatingly - states that he would be thrilled if the band played into their 60’s (Jagger will be 65 in July).  Then there are some hilarious clips that shows some of the band mates at their…say…highest.  When one American interviewer asks Watts how he could encapsulate the Stones’ success with breaking through to the US market, he stoically replies, “I have no idea.”  Then there is another droll moment when another interviewer asks Richards what is the most frequently asked question he has received, to which he sardonically states, “Well…that one, mate.” 

All of this is fun, but the real fun of SHINE A  LIGHT is seeing the concert itself.  The playlist emphasizes the band’s unique and eclectic stylings (their work has always been a homogenization of rhythm and blues, country, reggae, and rock and roll, and this shows in the film).  The songs, of course, are some of the more indelible of modern music, and despite the fact that we’ve heard them a million times before, the performance  here still feels fresh.   

Perhaps what’s most extraordinary is the awe-inspiring tenacity and spunk exuded by Jagger himself.  His face is clearly that of a man that is creeping up on 70, but everything from the neck down looks like he’s never departed his twenties.  Some musicians and singers forty years younger look as stiff as lamp posts, but Jagger careens and thrusts himself into every single song like he just drank ten expressos and topped it off with two packs of cigarettes and a massive injection of speed.  Even if one is not taken in by the Stones’ music, there is absolutely no denying the fact that Jagger and company cavort joyously and enthusiastically around on stage without any regard to their elderly frailties.  Physically, these guys are beyond mortal looking, but on a pure emotional level, they are ageless and immortal.  The fact that Jagger alone commands the stage for two hours while only breaking a modest sweat is astounding.   What’s most primal about The Stones is that they love what they do; age will simply not impede them. 

With the great Martin Scorsese quarterbacking everything with his characteristic painstaking eye and the Stones' legendary boisterousness and animation,  watching SHINE A LIGHT is arguably better than shelling out hundreds of dollars for nosebleed seats to see this iconic rock group live.  Scorsese brilliantly taps into the timelessness of Jagger’s showmanship and unparalleled – for his age – dexterity and pays loving homage to the group's songs, which have remained staples in the annals of pop culture.  For Stone-aholics, SHINE A LIGHT is an unqualified must-see film and for those that are more agnostic in their fondness for the group, you still come out respecting their dedication, not to mention that witnessing Scorsese acting with a military general’s tack and precision with his army of cinematographers is essential viewing for film students.  Regardless of tastes, SHINE A LIGHT is an astounding, jaw-dropping, and powerful entertainment. 

  H O M E