Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 15, 2008)
At the end of every Rolling Stones tour since 1981-82, we get an inevitable concert film. Some made it to the big screen – like 1983’s Let’s Spend the Night Together and 1991’s At the Max - while others went solely for the video route.
For something different, the Stones’ 2005-07 tour spawned two concert film productions. The expansive Biggest Bang set premiered at Best Buy back in 2006, but even though that package included four DVDs of material, the band wasn’t done.
The Stones took the Last Waltz path with 2008’s theatrical release, Shine a Light. Directed by Waltz’s Martin Scorsese, Light concentrates on the band’s performances at New York’s Beacon Theater in the fall of 2006. They played October 29 and November 1. The second show – originally intended for Halloween but delayed a day due to problems with Mick’s voice – provides the majority of the material in Light.
The early parts of Light give us a little info about preparations for the concert and the film. We see Scorsese and members of the Stones as they deal with their sides of things. We also check out pre-show elements like a meet and greet with President Clinton and others.
12 minutes into the piece, it becomes a pretty straight concert film. Some archival shots of the Stones appear, but most of Light sticks with modern concert footage of songs that span the band’s career. For the oldest songs, we find “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from 1965’s Out of Our Heads (US version) and “As Tears Go By” off of December’s Children (And Everybody’s). 1967’s Between the Buttons gives us “Connection”, and we find “Sympathy for the Devil” off of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet. That year’s single “Jumping Jack Flash” also pops up, while “You Got the Silver” and “Live With Me” come from 1969’s Let It Bleed.
From 1971’s Sticky Fingers, we get “Brown Sugar”
1972’s Exile on Main Street provides “All Down the Line”, “Tumbling Dice” and “Loving Cup”. (Although that album’s “Shine a Light” generates the movie’s title, it solely appears here as audio-only over the end credits.) 1978’s Some Girls throws out the title track, “Shattered”, “Far Away Eyes”, and the Stones’ cover of “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)”. (If it seems strange that Some Girls provides more songs than any of their better-regarded albums, I think that’s because it’s regarded as a “New York album”, so it gets extra juice when the band plays the Big Apple.)
From there we jump to 1981’s Tattoo You for mega-hit “Start Me Up”. “She Was Hot” from 1983’s Undercover brings us to the movie’s newest song. Finally, a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer” finishes the set. Except for “Connection” – marred by intrusive interview clips in its middle – all of these appear as standard performance segments.
Note that a few guest stars appear here. Jack White duets on “Loving Cup”, and Christina Aguilera pops up for “Live With Me”. (For reasons unknown, this has become the default Female Guest Star Tune in recent years.) Buddy Guy guests for “Champagne and Reefer”, and he turns in by far the most electrifying spot of the three.
I actually attended the November 1 show, but I can’t tell you how accurately Light represents the performance due to the quality of my seats. Despite the fact the Beacon only seats a few thousand, tickets cost a mere $50 and $25. I managed to land one of the latter, and that put me in the balcony. I didn’t think that’d be a problem given the venue’s diminutive size; after all, even a “bad seat” at the Beacon should still be good, right?
Wrong. Apparently due to the design of the band’s stage, those of us in the back couldn’t see the whole show. From my vantage point, I rarely glimpsed Jagger, and Keith and Ronnie also tended to vanish much of the time. Good thing I like Charlie, since he was the only Stone I could observe the whole night! I still enjoyed the show, though more as an event than as a concert; I’ve been to many better performances by the Stones, so this one was fun but not quite as stellar as I’d hoped.
I must admit it looks and sounds better on film than it did in person. Given Scorsese’s fame and the lasting legend of The Last Waltz, fans expected a lot from Light. I don’t think Scorsese delivers anything as memorable as Waltz here, but he does create a well above-average concert flick.
I’ve seen many a concert movie/video in my day, and many of them make the shows look downright boring. That never occurs during Light. If guilty of any sin, I’d say that Scorsese focuses too much on Mick. That concentration makes some sense since he’s the frontman and the most dynamic onstage presence of the bunch, but it still gets a little old. You begin to wonder if Scorsese only had one camera and couldn’t get around to the others.
Nonetheless, the show provides a good visual depiction of the concert and avoids the usual quick-cutting and other gimmicks that mar so many performance films. The Stones certainly sound good – maybe a little too good. By that I mean I suspect a little – or a lot – of post-concert dubbing took place to fix up mistakes. I’ve seen the Stones live 45 times, and I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed them put on a show as tight as the one displayed in Light. Were they this tight on November 1, 2006? I can’t remember the performance well enough to say “absolutely not”, but 45 concerts that reach varying levels of sloppiness tell me that there’s some Memorex at work here. The Stones – especially Ronnie and Keith – just screw up too much for me to believe that this thing’s all from the actual show.
No matter – I can’t blame the Stones and the filmmakers for a desire to give us a high-quality product, and post-concert “fixing” isn’t exactly news. If the Stones ever put out a “warts and all” concert album, I’d fall over from the shock. After all, this is the same band whose Got LIVE If You Want It actually took some studio tracks and added fake crowd noise to them! Any fixing involved here pales in comparison to more egregious examples.
And it all comes in the service of a very good concert film. Will anyone ever view Shine a Light as a definitive performance movie or a glimpse of the Stones at the top of their game? No, but since the original concert wouldn’t even qualify among my personal top 10 Stones performances, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s a very good flick and show, though, and one I’m happy to have.