The joke that Martin Scorsese seizes on throughout his megawattage Rolling Stones concert movie, Shine a Light, is that the band’s members have been asked “How much longer can you stay together/productive/alive?” every year since Mick Jagger was a soft-faced boy who looked barely out of grammar school. Does the movie penetrate the mystery of the group’s supernatural properties of regeneration? No: That’s beyond Scorsese’s ken—and, very likely, beyond the Stones’. What motivates him is both shallower and more fundamental. He stands before Jagger like a pagan sun-worshipper. Merely to capture this magical energy—this dynamo—on film would be triumph enough.
The pretty good news is that he pretty much has—and I’ll drop those annoying modifiers if the Imax version (which I haven’t seen) is as transcendent as I’ve heard. Scorsese does everything possible to get inside the event (or, really, the two events, both at New York’s Beacon Theatre, one a benefit hosted by birthday boy Bill Clinton). He brings together a Marvel Comics–worthy assemblage of super-cinematographers (among them John Toll, Andrew Lesnie, Robert Elswit, Emmanuel Lubezki, and Ellen Kuras) under the leadership of Robert Richardson (Albert Maysles—of the Maysles brothers, of Gimme Shelter—is even in there). He comes at the Stones from every imaginable angle. He voodoos the footage into a fluid whole. But Shine a Light needs a little push—Imax, 3-D (it worked for Hannah Montana!), Odorama, Hells Angels … some extra element of liveness. Because Jagger’s animation doesn’t draw you in. The light bounces off him and into outer space.
Scorsese is canny enough to make Jagger’s elusiveness the movie’s launching point: The director appears in a black-and-white prologue, trying to connect with the peripatetic bandleader about the set, the camera placement, the song list … But Jagger’s motor runs too fast—too fast even for Scorsese, king of the speed-freaky motormouths. He seems unwilling to inhabit the same present, to open himself up for an instant. And that’s true in concert, too, especially in signature jitterfests like “Jumping Jack Flash,” where his automatic pilot is faster than ever: He’s like the newest Terminator model, his rope-thin torso flicking determinedly, his cheeks sunken all the way to the armature. If you could replicate his movements exactly—every lightning stutter-step and bob and finger wag—would you be able to discern what he was thinking? More likely you’d spontaneously combust. It’s better when Jagger shares the spotlight with guest stars: with a smitten Jack White, looking like Edward Scissorhands’s pudgy brother; with Buddy Guy, who has a different kind of resonance (lungs, soul) and is smart enough to make Jagger come to him; and with, amazingly enough, Christina Aguilera, who brings much-needed va-va-voom to a stage full of old toothpick men—and who reminds you that Jagger, however self-contained, isn’t just about autoeroticism. Watch the way those pillowy lips form the word “Ag-gwee-lair-ahhh.”
In the old days, Jagger seemed to be taunting us—or, more likely, his stuffy British headmasters and their blue-haired wives—by parading around the stage as everything most fearsome, the cock of the walk as a huffy black androgyne. Now he taunts us with his stamina. Scorsese interpolates old interviews sparingly but with witty precision: “How long do you think this can go on?” “Uh, well, another year…” Keith Richards’s survival is a persistent source of wonder: Rock history is full of people who tried to keep pace with him, drug-wise, and did not survive—Brian Jones among them. Yet here he stands, looking like Freddy Krueger’s gypsy grandmother but alive and ridiculously happy. There’s Charlie Watts in old clips puzzling out his own identity, only fleetingly grasping his own magnificence—and here he is now, still no closer to the meaning of it all but amused by the circus. (That the drummer of the Rolling Stones is a Buddha of centeredness is some kind of great cosmic joke.) Everyone in the band seems to acknowledge that however slick the corporate entity called the Rolling Stones has become, there’s something unstable in its very DNA. I remember Keith in an old Musician interview saying the secret to their sound was that they always seem on the verge of falling apart but never do. That’s not how I’d describe them today—they’re tighter than ever. But the blend of driving rock and ramshackle blues is inherently fraught. It takes a lot of nerve and discipline and, yes, stamina to court entropy while making sure the center holds. (Anyone who saw the Replacements live knows how discomfiting it is to hear a band really on the verge of falling apart.)
My favorite rock-concert movies, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense and Neil Young: Heart of Gold, are organic: They chart a miraculous path from sound to soul. Scorsese stays on the outside, as befits his temperament and his subject. Yet there is, amid the whirligig spectacle, a spark of connection. Scorsese edits like a rock musician who never had the chops (or the breath—he’s an asthmatic) to take the stage. At the end of Shine a Light, the camera follows the Stones out of the Beacon Theatre and Scorsese waves it up up up over Manhattan Island. The little guy has kept up with his rock-and-roll gods. Now he shows off his own brand of potency by rising above the throng.