Shine a Light is mostly your standard concert video with a few key exceptions. The first exception is a very artificial pre-amble where the director of the film, Martin Scorsese, playing himself, laments that the Rolling Stones aren’t giving him enough information about their set list, and Mick Jagger laments that Marty is being too controlling about concert’s staging. The second exception is the pre-show meet and greet with Bill Clinton and his entourage, another comedy routine where the aging Stones get overwhelmed by Friends of Bill & Hill. The concert itself then begins and only lets up from time to time for the third anomaly, which is brief snippets of footage from archival Stones interviews. More on that later.
The first song, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is completely overwhelming. IMAX’s state of the art sound system is turned up to 11 and Scorsese’s seemingly infinite cameras give you every angle but wide. The cuts are rapid and Jagger’s legendary high energy had the real audience of the theater clapping along with the surround sound audience.
The audience I saw the movie with was pretty old. But they didn’t look as old as the Stones. By his choice of archival clips, Scorsese again and again puts the focus on the age and improbability of the Stones still performing by showing interviewers asking them — will they still do this when they are old? — why are they still doing this now that they are old? — isn’t it hard to be so energetic when you’re… old?
Them being old is, I think, the point. I had a lot of time to think about this, because I pretty much had sensory overload after the first song and everything shut down but my brain.* Whatever rebellion that the Stones once represented has become nostalgia, even for my generation — I’m 26. They don’t have an opinion about drugs or religion (though they sing ‘give me reefer’ and have ‘sympathy for the devil’). What do they represent?
When I wasn’t scrutinizing the audience, I was analyzing the semiotics. Though initially they looked like animated corpses — tattered coats on sticks even — these men possessed something of a fountain of youth, a fountain suggested by the design of the set behind them. Keith, flouting his Pirates of the Caribbean lapel pin, suggests maybe they discovered it on one of their many travel/adventures around the world. There they met fellow travelers Jack White, Christina Aguilera (!) and my personal favorite, Buddy Guy. The flashbulb lights are symbolic of the white light which the brain near death puts at the end of a hallucinatory tunnel.
Speaking of the lighting, I was a bit disappointed with d.p. Robert Richardson’s rather dull schemes. There were far too many parts of the image that were blown out or excessively grainy. (In IMAX, you notice these things.) The framings were also often wrong for IMAX and too many shots had poor focus, suggesting either inexperienced assistants, poor reference for those assistants, or an editor working from footage that was too low rez to determine focus.
As a concert movie experience, Shine a Light would seem to be unparalleled. As a film about the Rolling Stones, it offered just enough to tease my inner film studies major. Or to say it another way, I was kinda bored. I didn’t grow up listening to the Stones (mine was a Beatles childhood) and I’ve only recently come around to appreciating them. This, only after studying the Blues, Folk and Early Rock that are the American roots. Internationally, America is known for jazz. But jazz is as marginalized in modern America as formalist poetry. It is rock that connects the generations that are the Stones’ fanbase. And as rock innovators and crystalizers I give the Stones my praise. I get why they were huge; seeing them perform with such energy I get why they are still huge. But after watching this movie, I actually think there are fewer big ideas in their music than I had thought before.
The Rolling Stones are what they are. They have no agenda, musical or political. They are empty vessels into which old mantasies can be poured. Provided you have those drugs that help you pee.
* I found myself watching the audience a lot, including a front stable of young fillies who were surely cast for the documentary, based on the real sampling of Stones fans in my audience.