The Rolling Stones' newest single is sure to be a chart-topper. It's called "Sympathy for Judge Victor Valdivia."
Our review of Rolling Stones: Shine a Light (Blu-ray), published August 21st, 2008, is also available.
"Connection, I just can't make no connection.
Shine a Light is constructed as an event. The combination of the Rolling Stones, the most famous rock & roll band in the world, with Martin Scorsese (The Departed), arguably the most acclaimed director currently working, is meant to showcase both artists to best advantage. Indeed, if you're looking for a crisp, professional rock & roll performance that's been beautifully shot, it's hard to do better than this film. If, however, you want to see the Stones at the peak of their formidable powers, Shine a Light only rarely delivers.
Facts of the Case
Shine a Light was filmed at New York City's Beacon Theater over two nights, October 29 and November 1, 2006. Singer Mick Jagger, guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, and drummer Charlie Watts were joined by a backing band and some guest singers and musicians. Here is the set list:
• "Jumping Jack Flash"
The Rolling Stones have been one of the most influential, groundbreaking, and legendary rock bands for over forty years. They emerged from the same British postwar R&B scene as the Beatles, but while the Beatles championed melodic and uplifting music, the Stones ran hard in the other direction. Darker, funkier, and more explicit, the Stones released a string of momentous singles and albums in the '60s and '70s that almost singlehandedly laid the groundwork for entire genres of music in their wake: hard rock, heavy metal, glam, punk, and blues-rock.
Unfortunately, although it's impossible to deny the Stones' massive influence on modern music, it's also hard to deny that they've been coasting on their reputation and catalog for far too many years now. Yes, they still sell out stadiums. Yes, they still command a devoted following. Nonetheless, the Stones haven't released any noteworthy new music since the early 1980s. For the last twenty-five years, even as the Stones packed concert halls, they've released a series of forgettable new albums that have made no artistic or commercial impact whatsoever outside of their fan base. It's hard to say which was more unnecessary: their attempt to rehash the past glories of Exile on Main Street (1972) with the laidback garage rock of Voodoo Lounge (1994), or their attempt to cash in on hot trends with the electronic loops and production of Bridges to Babylon (1997). None of these recordings are bad enough to tarnish the Stones' legacy, but none of them have added anything to it, either. It's not surprising, then, that the thought of yet another Stones concert recording from the most recent tour isn't exactly filling many hearts with much anticipation.
Shine a Light is designed to overcome such indifference. For one thing, it's the first theatrically released Stones concert film since Let's Spend the Night Together (1983). Moreover, unlike recent Stones DVDs like Four Flicks and The Biggest Bang, Shine a Light is conceived as an overall look at their career, rather than as a promotional opportunity for their most recent album. As a final enticement, the Stones have brought in Scorsese, a masterful director who has always shown a prominent skill for using music (especially Stones music) in his films. It's worth noting, however, that Scorsese's only previous concert film, The Last Waltz (1978) was considerably divisive. The Last Waltz, which chronicled the Band's 1976 "farewell" concert, was widely praised by film critics as sophisticated and elegant, but just as roundly reviled by rock critics as turgid and ponderous. Consequently, the presence of Scorsese adds yet more uncertainty to Shine a Light and raises the question of whether this film will finally be the return to classic form that Stones fans have long been waiting for.
The answer is: not really. True, the set list is well-chosen, mixing well-worn classics with some intriguingly obscure choices. Shrewdly, the Stones, sensing that Shine a Light could have a wider audience than their previous concert DVDs, have avoided subjecting potential new fans to their lackluster recent music; the newest song here, "She Was Hot," dates all the way back to 1983. The presence of lesser-known tracks like "She Was Hot" and "Far Away Eyes" also results in some spurts of energy. Not surprisingly, the band seems to take more pleasure in playing these songs than in cranking out hoary chestnuts like "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Unfortunately, it quickly becomes obvious that in making the transition from scabrous young punks to polished elder statesmen, the Stones have sacrificed much of their spontaneity and spark. This is not a slapdash performance; the band members have been playing together too long for that. It is also, however, not an especially riveting one. Apart from a few songs (specifically, the more obscure ones), the music remains constant and steady but not exhilarating. For all the flashy stage moves, immaculate production, and skilled playing, the awe-inspiring moments of the Stones' best music (and there are plenty) very rarely emerge in this film. After a while, Shine a Light eventually becomes pleasant, well-performed background music, which may, in fact, be one of the worst insults to pay a band as formerly incendiary as the Stones.
The guest performers are a mixed bag. Jack White may have been invited to bring in the kids, but his style is all wrong for the song he's performing. His affected sloppiness doesn't mesh well with the vulnerable beauty of "Loving Cup." Too often, it sounds like he's singing and playing a completely different song than the rest of the band. Christina Aguilera, on the other hand, does a surprisingly good job with "Live with Me." At first glance, the combination of a former Mouseketeer and teen-pop princess with a song that epitomizes coked-out '60s rock decadence might seem bizarre, but her brassy sexiness fits the song's swagger like a glove. Buddy Guy does what he always does: perform loud, flashy, electric Chicago blues. He's been reheating this shtick for many, many years now, but if that's what you're looking for, he'll provide it with interest.
If Shine a Light is only an adequate concert film, it's actually a rather engaging documentary. The opening ten minutes, which show both the band and filmmakers preparing for the concerts, are among the most entertaining. The scenes of Jagger and Scorsese, two world-renowned control freaks, butting heads over the stage design, camera placement, and set list are, frankly, more electrifying than much of the concert that follows. Also interspersed throughout the film are brief interview snippets, all of which are taken from older interviews from the '60s and '70s. These are very short, running less than a minute each, so none is especially revealing (and viewers should not expect any detailed history of the band), but a few do have some amusingly ironic punchlines.
The DVD extras are actually continuations of the film, rather than newly produced features. The "Featurette" (15:10) is described on the DVD packaging with the phrase "behind the scenes," but it's really just an extended version of the opening of the film, with additional rehearsal and preparation footage, and some more archival interview clips. It's amusing enough, but there's really no additional context or explanation provided here. Anyone curious about the choices both the Stones and Scorsese made in performing and filming these concerts will have to look elsewhere. There are also four songs performed at the shows that were cut out of the finished film: "Undercover of the Night" (4:25), "Paint It Black" (4:39), "Little T&A" (4:09), and "I'm Free" (3:34). Paradoxically, though "Undercover of the Night" is usually considered a minor song, it's in fact the best performance of the four, and really should have been included in the final version. The other three are less gripping and were justly excised.
The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer is sharp. However, it was shot on film, so it's not quite as sharp as other Stones DVDs shot on video. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is clear, but surprisingly not that loud. The bass isn't used that much, and the surrounds are more for audience noise than music. It isn't bad, but it won't push your sound system as hard as you might expect. By contrast, Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same, a concert film that's over thirty years older, had a much more thunderous sound mix than this film. Even in this area, Shine a Light opts for safety rather than edginess.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Scorsese's direction is generally straightforward, apart from an unnecessarily showy shot just before the closing credits. He does, however, bring one unusual technique into the concert sequences. During several songs, he uses long tracking shots that pan from one side of the stage to the other. It's a technique that is rarely used in most modern concert recordings, which favor short jump cuts. This is an idea he also used in The Last Waltz, but it actually works better here. For one thing, the Stones are a lot livelier than the more staid Band, so the shots work to complement the music, rather than distract from it as they did in the earlier film. Plus, after many years of concert films and videos shot in the rapid-fire editing style of MTV, it's actually rather refreshing to see a concert film that takes its time visually. Ironically enough, an idea that seemed so ostentatious in 1978 has, some thirty years later, actually become a welcome relief.
Shine a Light is, by a wide margin, far superior to any of the more recent Stones concert DVDs. The presence of Scorsese and some of the guests will undoubtedly bring in many viewers who have (with good reason) avoided picking up a new Stones album in years. Those viewers should be aware, however, that Shine a Light is still very far from the Stones in full concert fury. For that, it would be better to track down Gimme Shelter or The Rolling Stones: Rock & Roll Circus, or even, for that matter, any number of bootleg recordings of the band in their '70s prime. Scorsese's filmmaking abilities and the band's occasional flashes of inspiration are simply not enough to really recommend this disc. It's a competent performance, but not an especially memorable one.
It's only rock & roll, but for the Rolling Stones, it used to be much, much more. Guilty of choosing professionalism over transcendence.
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Scales of Justice
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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