Scorsese Captures the Rolling Stones’ Energy in “Shine a Light”

Shine a Light The Rolling Stones in Martin Scorsese's "Shine a Light".

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective of the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.

When 2008’s Shine a Light came to theaters, it looked, on its surface, to be the least-risky theatrical release in Martin Scorsese‘s career. A straightforward concert doc culled from two nights with The Rolling Stones. Simple as that. The Stones’ music appearing in a Scorsese film had become a trope all its own by the time of The Departed, with “Gimme Shelter” alone making its third Scorsese appearance in that particular film. 

By October 2006, both the Stones and Scorsese were entering a valedictory period of sorts. The Departed had opened to raves and was on its way to becoming the filmmakers’ highest-grossing film to date, and one which would finally win him that elusive Best Director Oscar. The Stones’ world tour, subtitled “A Bigger Bang”, was becoming the highest-grossing rock tour of the time. One could argue that neither of them had anything to prove to the public by that point. Hell, there had already been several concert films of the Stones, including the 1991 IMAX release At the Max

Yet here they were, ripe with confidence and setting down for two nights at New York’s Beacon Theater to document two gigs (later edited to appear as one show) for a 2008 theatrical release. One would understand skepticism towards the vitality of the project. What could yet another Stones concert film offer the world? Hadn’t their longevity and performance power become a given more than 40 years into their touring career? Could the filmmaker himself even match his lauded efforts of The Last Waltz, which at least had the dramatic edge of being about the final performance of its subject?

The film begins with mostly black and white low-key backstage footage, chronicling the gig’s planning stages. We cut between Scorsese and Jagger on intersecting paths towards the Beacon summit.  Much is made about how Mick Jagger wants no cameras whizzing around on the stage, and how he keeps withholding his proposed setlist from the Director. We see Bill and Hillary Clinton interacting with the band on the night before Bill later does an onstage intro (the gig’s proceeds went to charity via The Clinton Foundation). As an audience, we are unexpectedly caught up in this assured, steady buildup towards the performance. As the Beacon announcer declares the band to the Beacon’s audience, Scorsese is shown finally getting the setlist with seconds to spare from his backstage command perch. 

With a one-two punch of the band performing “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Shattered”, the design of the film becomes clear. The Beacon’s intimate proscenium space with less than 3,000 seats is more focused for direct performance than the stadium gigs The Stones were habitually nailing on that tour. We get a re-calibrated band that is not overreaching in their intensity, but is still hitting every number with considerable panache. 

The camera crew may be limited in full mobility, but it is operated by a dream team of cinematographers, including John Toll (The Thin Red Line), Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant). The crisp onstage lighting, fluid shots, and dynamic editing put even small screen viewers on the edge of their seats.  A decade later, Shine a Light makes a strong case for being the best-looking concert movie of all time. You feel as though you have the best dozen seats in the house all at once.

Scorsese occasionally drops in shorter news clips from various stages of the Stones’ career, as far back as the early ’60s. We hear throwaway lines in tv interviews alluding to their legal troubles (including a throwaway bit about Jagger being released from prison), but are given no follow-up on any details of biographical utility. Scorsese is not seeking to unearth the demons of this band here. No jaded histrionics, no tales of dark sides or spiritual redemption. Instead of going for poignancy comparing the Stones of past and present, these clips are effectively used to highlight that time did nothing to diminish the spirit (nor the stamina) of their showmanship.

You feel as though you have the best dozen seats in the house all at once.

And what a show they give. Jagger is thrillingly alive from beginning to end, moving with utter confidence and almost elastic vigor. Keith Richards never seemed more similar to Captain Jack Sparrow than he does here (even sporting a very visible pirate pendant in close-up), and uses his cigarette smoke as theatrically as the iconic guitar riffs he plays. Any current rock band would be happy to have Charlie Watts and Ron Wood show up like they do here. When Jagger does a mid-set introduction of the backup singers and (considerably less famous) support musicians, they have earned applause from the home viewer.

The film also shows three famous musical guests adding some variety to the Beacon set, each for one number with the Stones. Jack White humbly molds with the band, accompanying them on acoustic guitar for “Loving Cup”. Christina Aguilera does a decidedly PG-13 dance with Mick for “Live with Me”. Both Aguilera and White are happy to bring youthful appeal to the proceedings, but they are essentially second fiddle in their numbers to the Stones. Buddy Guy‘s spot though, “Champagne and Reefer”, is something else.  Invigorating the audience and the band, Guy leads the number with a trademark flair that is arguably the highlight of the picture.

Many of the Stones’ biggest hits are present in this set. In every number of the film, from “Tumbling Dice” to “Satisfaction”, Scorsese succeeds in showcasing the synergy the Rolling Stones had (and really, still have).  Shine a Light showcases this band’s particular dynamic more vividly than any documentary or book has done before, or since.  In the two-hour run time, you never get the sense that that the band (nor the director) has taken their audience for granted. Though the “Shine a Light” track that gives the film its name is not part of this film’s set (we hear part of it during the end credits), that song has a lyric that sums up this particular performance: “Make every song you sing your favorite tune.”

While it may be the least searching theatrical release of Scorsese’s career, Shine a Light still packs enough of a kinetic (and sonic) punch to match his most vivid cinematic efforts.

Shine a Light Trailer:

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