As a long time fan of The Rolling Stones, I slipped Martin Scorsese’s “Shine a Light” concert/documentary into my DVD player, desperately wanting them to not suck. After all, rock and roll is thought of as a young man’s game, and their advancing age long ago became a stale topic for jokes. I was pleasantly surprised. While it took them a while to hit their stride, before the concert was over, I was blown away. Mick is one of the greatest front men rock and roll has ever known, but he’s the weak spot in the first half of “Shine A Light,” and I was starting to worry that young Mick had set the bar too high for an older Mick to clear. Time has reduced his vocal range, and his dance moves at first seemed too thought-out, with only flashes of his formerly fluid gyrations. He’s least impressive when he straps on a guitar for their classic song, “Some Girls.” The close proximity of two of the most effortless guitarists ever serves to magnify his shortcomings in that area. For most musicians, playing guitar between Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards is like having sex with a pig. You’re not going to feel good about yourself afterwards, and it annoys the pig. (With apologies to Robert Heinlein).
As good as most of the concert footage is, and as well as it’s shot, the interviews and backstage segments are the most entertaining part of the film. When asked who’s the better guitarist: himself or Ron Wood, Keith answers, “We’re both pretty lousy but, together, we’re better than ten others.” Another high point is when a crewmember mentions to Scorsese that the light he intends to use for an effect is so bright that it may literally burn Mick if he stands in front of it for more than eighteen seconds. Marty replies: “We cannot BURN Mick Jagger.” Jagger remains unscathed, and his finest vocals come during Far Away Eyes, while Ronnie Wood supplies authentic country steel guitar. Richards provides backing vocals and, mid-song, he barks at a heckler to “Shut up!” to his own delight, and to Mick’s consternation. For a second, one of the naughty schoolboys becomes the headmaster, and it’s like a Scorsese-directed episode of “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Buddy Guy, who has seven or eight years on The Glimmer Twins, wisely never did splits – so no one expects them from him. And he steals the show with his vein-bulging blues belting and spectacular string bending on the blues staple “Champagne & Reefer.” As he attempts to keep up with Buddy, Keith launches a lit cigarette from his mouth like an exploding space shuttle. (When you’re Keith Richards, New York City’s Beacon Theater is just another ashtray.) After Buddy’s powerhouse performance, Keith gives him his guitar in homage, and Buddy leaves the stage having reinvigorated the band. They’re the “old Stones” again for the next number, and the rest of the show. Although Christina Aguilera and Jack White make appearances, neither can top Buddy’s. Mick leaves the stage for “You Got the Silver” with Ronnie playing bottleneck acoustic guitar, while Keith sings without his guitar around his neck. It drives home how infrequently you see Keef without a cigarette, a guitar, or a pint, or all three. Richards is a man who loves his job after all these years, and for that reason he’s the heart of the band, and the star of the show. When Keith hits a sour note during the intro to “Start Me Up,” he explains it away with a shrug, as if to say: “It’s Only Rock & Roll.” Mick is back full-force for their encore, “Brown Sugar” and “Satisfaction.”
The DVD includes a “supplemental featurette” with outtakes and archival footage and, while it’s not exactly a fair trade for not seeing the film in IMAX, you also get bonus performances of “Undercover of the Night,” “Paint It Black,” “T&A,” and “I’m Free.” Sadly, at the first of the two shows used in the film, Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun fell backstage, hit his head, and never recovered. It’s to him that this documentary is dedicated.