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Turn Off the Lights

Scorsese does the Stones--about 30 years too late.

12:00 AM, Apr 4, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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MARTIN SCORSESE'S Shine a Light opens with Scorsese and the Rolling Stones negotiating over just how to shoot the film. Scorsese wants a set list well in advance so he can figure out how to position his fleet of cameras and choreograph their movements; the Stones want to ensure that the camerawork doesn't interfere with the sightlines of the people who paid to be there. Knowing the heartburn he's causing America's greatest living director, Mick Jagger laughs to the camera as preparation continues, footloose and fancy-free as ever.

I can't help but feel that Scorsese was secretly laughing to himself as he assembled the film, subtly taking revenge on the lead singer and his bandmates for the annoyance they had caused him by splicing it with old interviews to remind everyone that the Rolling Stones are, in fact, ancient. Watching Mick Jagger prance around the Beacon Theater like a twenty-something is bad enough, but juxtaposing those images with footage culled from interviews conducted some forty years ago is absolutely jarring. And in some ways, horrific. The Rolling Stones less resemble musicians at this point in their career than leather Muppets.

Mick Jagger remains an energetic frontman, Keith Richards is still Keith Richards, and the other two guys still do whatever they do, but the notes aren't as sharp. The instruments aren't played as well. And they look haggard. They're way past their prime, and it shows.

Comparisons to Scorsese's seminal film about The Band, The Last Waltz, are inevitable, but in a way they're unfair. The Last Waltz is epic in nature. It's about the end of an era, the collapse of one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the 1960s and '70s under the weight of constant touring and recording. Spliced in between songs are interviews conducted by Scorsese that get to the heart of both The Band and what it meant to be a part of the rock 'n' roll scene during that time period. The Last Waltz is closer in nature to "Italianamerican," a short by Scorsese that is both intimate (he spends the film interviewing his parents about their lives and cooking techniques) and grand (the questions also shed light on the old country and the immigrant experience) in scope.

Shine a Light, on the other hand, is merely a concert film. True, Scorsese does throw in old interview clips every couple of songs that give us a sense of the Stones' progression bother personally and professionally. But all they serve to do is remind us that the Rolling Stones are, in fact, old. Probably too old to be doing what they are doing.

So let's take Shine a Light on its own terms: As a concert film, how does it hold up? Pretty well. First of all, it looks fantastic. All that worrying Scorsese did before the lights went down and the band took the stage was for naught--he and his crew did a wonderful job of capturing the concert. There are only so many things you can do with a camera crew at a rock concert--a camera in the balcony, one on tracks in front of the stage, one on a crane swinging around, and another guy or two with handhelds on either side of the stage--but Scorsese does them all very well. Thanks to the intimacy of the venue we're never far from the audience, which is key: a great concert experience oftentimes owes less to the band than the strangers you see it with. For many of us, the concert hall (along with the sports stadium) has replaced the church pew as the most meaningful venue for group interaction. Scorsese's film has a good feel for that dynamic.

Shine a Light features the requisite guest appearances, but they're decidedly underwhelming; Christina Aguilera and Jack White are fine enough performers, but they're not exactly Neil Young and Eric Clapton (who stopped in during The Last Waltz). And the concert lacks a great moment, something that stands out after you've left the theater. The Last Waltz featured Clapton's riffing with The Band guitarist Robbie Robertson during "Further on Up the Road"; U2's Rattle and Hum contains a classic performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" in which a distraught Bono makes an impassioned plea for peace the day after a deadly IRA bombing. No such moment exists in Shine a Light. The Stones perform their hits, and some seldom heard deeper cuts, but the music is about as memorable as something you'd get from them at a halftime show.

In the end, I can only recommend seeing the picture if you're a fan of the Rolling Stones--or enjoy partaking in baby boomer self-satisfaction. (The evening's cohost was the one and only Bill Clinton, and the film is sure to be praised by aging boomers intent on telling us "No, really, Mick Jagger is sexy!") Seeing their withered visages take the stage, I couldn't help but feel that it's about time that the Stones joined Clinton in semi-retirement.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.