Film Reviews

Shine A Light Martin Scorsese

Rating - 4/10

Martin Scorsese and The Rolling Stones. The former is arguably America’s most famous living director; the latter are arguably Britain’s most famous living musicians. Scorsese’s admiration for The Rolling Stones has long been well documented in his films. Since the release of his breakthrough film Mean Streets in 1973, Scorsese has used the Stones’ music in four of his films including Goodfellas and most recently The Departed

So when The Rolling Stones commissioned Scorsese to create a concert film near the end of their hugely successful 2006 A Bigger Bang world tour, it appeared to be an astute partnership. After all Scorsese directed the ‘rockumentary’ masterpieces No Direction Home and The Last Waltz, whilst The Rolling Stones appeared in the seminal rock documentary film of the 1970’s Gimmie Shelter

The setting for this landmark event was a charity concert headlined by former U.S President Bill Clinton in front of a few thousand handpicked witnesses. Filmed over two nights at the Beacon Theater on Scorsese’s home turf of New York City, the famed director applied the venue’s small capacity and close surroundings to project a sense of intimacy and contemplation. 

In their fourth decade of existence, The Rolling Stones are one of rock's greatest survivors, despite noted in-group fissures, deceased band members and rampant drug abuse. Unsurprisingly, age is Scorsese's thematic angle throughout the film. Youthful elements such as gargantuan video screens and laser light shows are discarded in favour of an austere backdrop. With each member in their sixth decade of existence, the Stones' aged status cuts across the screen. The band who once proudly claimed that “time is on my side,” clearly are beginning to bear time's visual markings: as Jagger’s bulging eyes and colossal lips appear to pierce through crevices in his taut, leathery skin, whilst Richards’ cadaverous body somehow continues to remain vertically upright.

The concert does not show the band at its peak, nor is it an ideal crystallization of their strengths. Under Scorsese's direction, the film is best viewed as a tribute to an aging act surviving in a vicious, youth-orientated industry. In contrast to Shine A Light, the great concert films attempt to posit the artists and their music within in a greater socio-cultural context. These films primarily fall into two overlapping categories. The first documents the ascent or decline of a cultural institution, a group or a movement. Films like the Maysles' Gimmie Shelter, Scorsese's The Last Waltz or D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop fall into this format with their ability to record a defining element of an era. The second analyzes a shift in values, approaches and styles and their effects on a wider cultural spectrum. Films like D.A Pennebaker's Don't Look Back or Mel Stuart's Wattstax fall into this category:  highlighting the agents of change and offering a perspective into these often seismic cultural shifts. Shine A Light does neither. 

Shine A Light does not capture the end of The Rolling Stones, but rather a moment of grace during a excessively profitable mammoth tour. Whilst the concerts Shine A Light combines on screen are for a charitable cause, the intentions and motives of this benefit and The Rolling Stones' subsequent involvement are quite hazy throughout the film. In contrast to Live Aid or The Who's filmed Teenage Cancer Trust benefit shows, Shine A Light comes across as simply another concert for The Rolling Stones, albeit one treated as an unfettered homage to the band by director Martin Scorsese. Yet, his attempt to shift the film into a greater appreciation of The Rolling Stones is undone chiefly by his disorganized approach. 

Interspersed within the film’s twenty-something performances, Scorsese randomly inserts a series archival interviews to break-up the action with little regard to their connection to the music onstage. The context of this footage continually reverts to the heavy-handed theme of longevity, but due to Scorsese’s scattershot application, the archival interviews lack any genuine historical analysis or context. Surprisingly, neither the interviews, nor the concert footage itself, offers any insight into the intra-group politics and dynamics. Furthermore,the band’s sometimes misogynistic and racist lyrics are not placed under any critical microscope, despite the fact the concert features such lyrically questionable songs as Under My ThumbSome GirlsLive With Me and Brown Sugar

Clearly slanted in the Stones’ favour, Scorsese’s archival choices and his emphasis on time seems to ask his audience for some courtesy, some sympathy and some taste. Indirectly, the director projects the notion that time has washed away the sins of the past and made The Rolling Stones respectable. Almost fifty years since the release of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, The Rolling Stones are no longer viewed as a carrier of social ills, but elder statesmen of rock who now perform for  aging international statesmen and wait on Hillary Clinton’s tardy octogenarian mother. As evidenced by their set list, which avoids politically charged songs such as Gimmie Shelter and Street Fighting Man, The Rolling Stones are now clearly little more than an apolitical, commercial behemoth. Shine A Light captures the tail-end of this evolution, but offers no insight into how the band reached its current state. 

Consequently, Shine A Light comes across as a tepid vanity project. Without Scorsese's involvement, one wonders whether this undistinguished concert would have quickly bypassed audiences with little fanfare, as there is little to demarcate it from other straight-to-video concert fare such as Oasis' equally lackluster Familiar To Millions. Although the concert footage is warmly shot, the 122 minute-long affair is rather uneventful and at times flaccid both in terms of direction and performance. Despite the wealth of material at his disposal, Scorsese has little new or original information to add to The Stones narrative. Awestruck in the presence of his heroes, the director appears content to lionize the Stones' mythology and imagery. The result is a film surprisingly unable to categorize the band's long-standing appeal, nor willing to humanize The Rolling Stones' individual components.

A missed opportunity. But, as someone once said, "you can't always get what you want".