It seems like only yesterday that the once-rebellious Mick Jagger uttered those portentous words, "I don't want to be doing this when I'm 40." Or was it 50? Either way, Jagger was speaking about music, of course, not business. Because when it comes to business, the Stones will never retire. And who can blame them? They're so good at it. These days the same fury they once put into tunes like "Street Fighting Man" or "Jumping Jack Flash" has been channeled into profiteering. Money is how the Stones get their ya yas out today. As their latest foray into film confirms, the bad boys of rock 'n' roll have ripened into the big boys of even bigger business.
It's no huge surprise that the Stones are the first band to experiment with the wonders of IMAX. Once the exclusive domain of tame nature flicks that allowed armchair adventurers to raft the Colorado River, the IMAX experience--extra wide film, thunderous speakers and a six-story screen--has the potential to become a major force in the music business. The Stones are banking on the likelihood that IMAX could open a huge secondary market for their products. By capturing concerts on the megascreen for later viewing, IMAX can target the VCR-addicted generation that grew up with the Stones but is now unwilling to get off their clouds and deal with the "hassles" of going to a live show. The Rolling Stones: "At the MAX", IMAX's first experiment with this theory, is a safe, sanitized concert experience. While it lacks the spontaneity of a live show, "At the MAX" retains enough punch--mostly through the 100-decibel soundtrack--to satisfy the casual fan. Technically, the film has its awesome moments. The medium shots, those showing the entire width of the stage and fans ten deep in the foreground, are the most spectacular. Even the obligatory crowd shots--oceanic expanses of waving arms--flex a muscle most concert films lack.
Musically, the Stones are the perfect first-time concert for the IMAX cameras. Mick's incessant pseudo-Tai Chi posing and Keith's living-dead pallor make for great close-ups, and the rest of the band is so moribund that it really doesn't matter that you're not seeing them live.
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In fact, you may even think you're watching the dead. Bassist Bill Wyman seems to drift from comatosity to rigor mortis without any intervening death certificate. Although "At the MAX" was culled from stadium concerts in Turin, East Berlin and London, Wyman stands in the same spot, in the same drab clothes, with the same disdainful pucker, throughout the entire film. No wonder he's left the band.
Shot during the 1990 "Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle Tour", the 15-song program offers a greatest-hits collection that mixes chestnuts like "Ruby Tuesday" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" with newer radio standards like "Start Me Up" and "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." For Stones faithful, the most interesting number is "2,000 Light Years From Home" from the album Their Satanic Majesties Request. Unfortunately, this swirling, otherworldly ode was marred by an annoying videoization process that added little but eye strain.
Although the band plays with routine abandon, the stage set often steals the show. From a distance, the Stones appear in microscopic relief against their rusting backdrop--a huge, sprawling, pipe-and-sheet-metal monstrosity that disgorges smoke like an oil refinery. But the set's visual high point comes during "Honky Tonk Women," when two Macy's-parade-size balloons of barroom babes are inflated on either side of the stage. As the band performs, stagehands tug at cables to make both oversize love dolls positively quiver.
The film's most telling moment, however, serves as an apt metaphor for what the Stones collaboration with IMAX is all about. After the encore, as the entire entourage comes together for a bow, there is a shower of gold confetti. Gold, of course, is why the Stones made "At the MAX". It's business, not music. And to maximize the commercial potential, even concert tee shirts, tapes and other souvenirs are sold in the theatre lobby. So, for those unwilling to fight concert crowds and traffic, "At the MAX" is probably a fair trade-off at $14 per ticket. But as concert films go, "At the MAX" doesn't begin to approach the artistry or intelligence of Woodstock, The Last Waltz or the Stones' own Gimme Shelter. For the first 15 minutes, the novelty of "At the MAX" is overwhelming. After that, it devolves into a loud and largely perfunctory performance. For those who remember this band when it was still alive musically, "At the MAX" is ultimately just another "product." Had it been made in 1978, after they released Some Girls, this film might have meant something more than a six-story, high-ticket sideshow. Say, a vital musical statement. Of course in those days, when the music mattered more than the aftermarket, even Mick Jagger would have balked at such celluloid gimmickry. In "At the MAX", Bill Wyman can no longer conceal his contempt.