It’s Only a Rock ’n’ Roll Documentary (But I Like It!)

Running time 120 minutes
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Ron Wood and others

Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light, featuring the Rolling Stones onstage with their talented friends—including Christina Aguilera, Byrdie Bell, Buddy Guy, Kimberley Magness and Jack White—rattled my old bones to nirvana and beyond as I searched for superlatives adequate to describe the rapturous vibes let loose by the performers. And this was only a screening, mostly consisting of a Stones concert at Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre in the fall of 2006. Mick and Keith were both in their 60’s, and the energy they exuded and expended was little short of miraculous.

When I was teaching at the School of Visual Arts in 1965, all the students seemed to be fanatical Stones fans, listening to their songs incessantly on the cafeteria jukebox. They seemed determined to make me see how wrong I was to prefer the Beatles, as I had implied in 1964 in The Village Voice (I had raved about A Hard Day’s Night, which I designated as “the Citizen Kane of juke-box musicals”). I still like the Beatles, but to put it as brutally as possible, where are they now?

Mr. Scorsese begins sedately enough: Bill and Hillary Clinton are on hand very briefly to dedicate the concert to the cause of Global Warming Awareness. There are also brief clips from concerts held in cities across America and Canada from 2005 to 2007, concurrently with the release of their latest album, A Bigger Bang. In one of the clips, a young Keith Richards scoffs at Dick Cavett’s question of continuing his strenuous performance into his 60’s. Or perhaps it was Mick Jagger scoffing, as he often did in his drug-ridden, jail-time-serving wild younger days.

Still, it’s a long way from Liverpool to London, as far as comparing the sweeter and more melodious Beatles to the rock-strewn rhythm-and-blues frenzies of the Stones. Inasmuch as I have never in my life attended a live concert of either the Beatles or the Stones, perhaps I speak with the authority of almost complete ignorance, as I often do. But now that I have seen Mr. Scorsese’s amazingly graphic and fluid rendition of a full-fledged Stones concert, all bets are off, at least on the performing level. Shine a Light makes me feel as if I had never really seen the Stones before in their 45-year career, including their extensive screen exposure.

Consider, for instance, One plus One/Sympathy for the Devil, a British-made curiosity from 1968 I chanced across in my relentless pursuit of Jean-Luc Godard’s career through his lean Maoist years with Jean-Paul Gorin. There I bumped into the Stones setting up for a future play date as Godard’s circularly moving camera followed the group. I particularly recall that one could see the comparatively good-looking Brian Jones, the ill-fated guitarist and original founder of the Stones, only from behind. He was later fired and found dead in his private swimming pool. It is now widely believed that the drug-addicted and foulmouthed Jones was actually murdered by the short-tempered workers on his estate.

At one point in the film, the ever-impish Mick Jagger acknowledges the unseen Godard on the mobile camera stand with a jaunty rhetorical question, “Ça va?” It doesn’t require an audible answer, and it doesn’t get one.

Documentarians Albert and David Maysles created a stir in 1970 with Gimme Shelter, their controversial account of a free 1969 concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, where the Stones shared the bill with Jefferson Airplane. Here the Stones became unwilling participants in an on-camera murder melodrama involving the Hell’s Angels bikers, who had set themselves up on the stage as guardians of public order. The performance of some of the best Stones songs—“Sympathy for the Devil,” “Brown Sugar,” “Satisfaction,” and “Under My Thumb,” among others—was overshadowed after the murder took all the steam out of the occasion by its solemn-faced imputation of something wrong with the youthful rock scene.

The point is that I never really “got” the Stones, partly because my infatuation for the Beatles left me unresponsive to everything else on the pop scene, and partly because I was a complete stranger to the live rock music world. What impressed me most about Shine a Light was its sheer exuberance in projecting feelings of joy, love, comradeship and mutual admiration. I am told that some Stones concerts last four hours, and I can believe it. I have also been told that Keith Richards has remained the driving force keeping the group functioning all these years, as Mick Jagger’s frequent flirtations with going solo are well documented. But in the context of the Stones, Jagger is quite simply a force of nature, energizing a whole stage with his seemingly ageless vitality and emotional connection with all his colleagues and every member of the audience. At times, he can be sung off the stage by a Buddy Guy or a Jack White, but he keeps coming back more determined than ever to keep the carnival in full swing.

Mr. Scorsese has been in this groove before, with 1978’s undervalued The Last Waltz covering the final concert of the Band. The same generosity of spirit was present then as in Shine a Light now. Yet it would be a mistake to say that Mr. Scorsese just let things happen in either instance. What he does especially well is to place the viewer in a privileged position denied even to the members of the live audience. We enjoy the close-ups of the artists, the sudden swoops of the camera as it captures the jolting energy of Jagger jumping-jack. Ultimately, however, the Rolling Stones are to be exalted above all for all the enormous effort they have made for so long to entertain us. It’s hard work, and they have not used their advanced ages as an excuse to shirk it. It’s Only a Rock ’n’ Roll Documentary (But I Like It!)