What a difference four decades make. In 1969, as recorded in the documentary Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones watched on at Altamont while their drunken ad hoc security team, the Hells Angels, kept the crowd of 300,000 in check with pool cues and knives, stabbing one fan to death, as we see in repeated slow motion. In 2006 at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, the Stones hosted Bill Clinton (it was his 60th birthday) and his guests, who included Hillary’s mother and the president of Poland. To keep the show relevant for the kids, however, these geezers were shuffled to the back of the house, and the front rows were packed with nubile 20-year-old women.
VIDEO: The trailer for Shine a Light
Is Martin Scorsese’s new movie any different from an SUV commercial backed with ’60s classic-rock tunes? At the risk of overinterpreting, I’d say Shine a Light represents a new stage in his approach to bio-pics, demonstrating with a minimum of directorial intrusiveness the illusion of the passage of time. The ecstasy and the chaos of the ’60s manifest themselves here only in the polished stage energy of the Stones’ show, and in the occasional discreetly inserted archival interview that radiates an aura of immortal youthfulness. The dominant tone, though, is not nostalgia but triumph, as the Stones’ lives and their career coalesce into the microcosm of a single show (actually three) and a two-hour film. It all conjures Scorsese’s Band bio The Last Waltz (1978), his Dalai Lama bio Kundun (1997), his Howard Hughes bio The Aviator (2004), and Jesus’s final, hallucinatory scene in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) in being a wonderful dream.
That aside, Shine a Light is the consummate concert movie, a collaboration between the World’s Greatest (and certainly oldest) Rock and Roll band and perhaps the greatest living American filmmaker. It starts with the usual fumbling about in putting together a show, with Scorsese on screen whining about trying to get an advance song list. (The list proves uncannily programmatic, telling a story from “Jumping Jack Flash” to “As Tears Go By” to “Just My Imagination” et al.) But then the music takes over and the Stones perform perhaps better than they ever have; it’s an apotheosis.
The light shines on Jagger, a haggard dervish with impossible energy. And on Keith Richards, revealing a face like a lost moon of Jupiter, new fissures and lava fields exposed with each close-up, all of it surmounted by the same diabolical schoolboy grin visible in the archival footage from the ’60s. “It’s good to see you all,” he says. “It’s good to see anybody.” Then he rasps into a rendition of “You Got the Silver” that sounds as fresh as the cut on Let It Bleed. His younger incarnation returns in an old interview, where he confesses with uncharacteristic ingenuousness that performing for him is the ultimate experience — quite a claim from someone who snorted his father’s ashes.
Jagger, Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ron Wood achieve that transcendence here for the millionth time. So does Scorsese. As the musicians leave the stage in the wake of a hand-held camera, the filmmaker appears not once but twice as they pass through succeeding doors (an allusion to the steadicam shot in Good Fellas, if not the endless backstage in Spinal Tap), into the street and up to the heavens from where such gods descend.