Concert films are constantly at war with themselves. If the musical act is transcendent, then a filmed document will never come close to reproducing the experience of seeing and hearing the act live, in the same way that an ordinary photograph can only serve, at best, as a reminder of a moment. Even a great, exact reproduction is still just a copy, not the original. If the act is merely average or worse, then why bother to record it?
The Rolling Stones have been captured performing in concert on film or tape numerous times, so the challenge that lay before Martin Scorsese was to do something different. After all, this is the man who redefined concert films with The Last Waltz in 1978, in which he eschewed the prevailing wisdom that a concert had to include generous allotments of time devoted to the concert goer's point of view. Instead, Scorsese kept the action tightly focused on the stage, allowing the audience to enjoy the interplay between the members of The Band and various guests who shared in the group's final performance. He balanced that with lively interviews; in the process, he helped to establish Robbie Robertson as a viable solo personality in the eyes of the film industry.
I should amend the previous paragraph to read like this: "The challenge that lay before Martin Scorsese was to do something different or so I thought!" As it turns out, my expectations for Shine a Light were far too high.
Because of Scorsese's track record as a documentarian, his legendary appreciation of music, and his expertise in using the soundtracks of his films to enhance the dramatic action, I imagined he was impelled to shoot the music doc because he had something new to say or because he wanted to coax some new insights from the group as they age into infinity. Instead, he made a routine documentary that could have been made by any competent director.
While I'm not a die-hard Stones fan, I definitely respect their legacy and can happily recall singing along many times with their hits over the years. There are probably at least 40-50 songs of theirs that are permanently burned into my memory banks, and I wouldn't have it any other way. (One of the more revealing moments of the doc comes when we see Mick Jagger compiling a set list, working from a printed list of song titles divided into categories such as "medium known," "well known," and 'the ones we don't really want to play again.') The concert, performed as a benefit at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, is razor-edged and sharply performed, at least to my ears. Watching it on a huge IMAX screen -- my first full-length experience with the format -- I was most impressed by the ear-splitting volume. I didn't feel the bass thumping in my chest, as I have at past live concert performances, and my ears didn't start bleeding, but it was definitely in the right vicinity to make you feel like you were right there at the Beacon Theatre.
Ah, but watching it -- there's the rub. Camera placement is always an issue for concert films. Neither the musical act nor the audience wants cameras getting in the way of the show, but if you're not going to have close-ups, then you might as well just plant the cameras next to a seat in the middle of the venue and let them roll. The thinking is that close-ups are essential to make you "feel like you're there," and also provides a view that you wouldn't get if you were actually in the venue.
That's been a decent working blueprint in in the past, but with IMAX the problem of close-ups is amplified. On the huge IMAX screen, with Mick Jagger's face the size of a building, I realized that a plethora of close-ups makes clear that Mick is performing, by which I mean, he's putting on a show for hundreds or thousands of people in the building, not performing for the camera. His exaggerated gestures, the extreme facial contortions, and the like, are perfect in front of large auditoriums, but in close-up you can see that he's playing to the cheap seats -- and looking right through you. While great actors can communicate volumes with their eyes, if you stare into Mick Jagger's eyes, nothing stares back. The same applies to Keith Richards and Ron Wood, and to guest performers Jack White and Christina Aguilera. (Buddy Guy is an exception. The man gives great stare.) The extreme amount of close-ups ends up distancing the viewer from the performer.
In a similar way, Shine a Light is profoundly obvious in its editing rhythms. Keith strums a chord to start a song, point camera at Keith. Mick sings, point camera at Mick. Ron Wood solos, point camera at Ron. Mick starts singing again, point camera at Mick, preferably in extreme close-up. It could be argued that Scorsese is simply sticking with the most dramatic action on stage at that moment, but Scorsese is a great filmmaker because he knows that some of the best, most revealing, most unexpected moments happen where and when you least expect them. What can't we have some variety? What can't we see what Ron Wood is doing when Mick is singing? Why can't we ever get close-ups of Chuck Leavell on keyboards?
And what's with the rote rotation of two or three songs followed by the most obviously ironic archival interview clips imaginable? Here's one such sequence: song, song, interview clip of Young Mick in the '60s: "How much longer do you think you'll be playing?" "Another year," cut to Old Mick in the 00's still playing. It's funny the first time, and then becomes a bit numbing. Didn't the Stones feel like talking, or do they feel they've said all they have to say at this stage of their careers?
As I noted above, I understand the limitations of concert films -- it sounds like the Stones absolutely did not want a cameraman on stage, etc. -- and I also understand that filmmakers cannot always get the clips they want. Most likely, if Scorsese's name were not on the film, I would have zero expectations and been pleasantly surprised to see that the Rolling Stones are still working hard in concert. But with Scorsese's name attached, I wanted more.
If you'd like to experience the Stones "live in IMAX," Shine a Light may be just the ticket. But if you're looking for something a little different, look elsewhere.