In comic books, one of the coolest things that can happen is when two great superheroes — like, say, Superman and the Flash or Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk — join forces for a one-off adventure that, if executed properly, will be remembered by fanboys for years to come. Marvel had the unimaginatively titled Marvel Team-Up, and DC had The Brave and the Bold. On April 4, the concert documentary Shine a Light made these super-collaborations look lame by comparison as it paired up what many would call the greatest rock band in history, the Rolling Stones, with one of the greatest American movie directors ever, Martin Scorsese.
The idea for the concert movie came to Mick Jagger before the Stones' A Bigger Bang tour, which ran from August 2005 to August 2007 and grossed more than half a billion dollars. The goal was to shoot the band's biggest concert ever — in Rio de Janeiro for an audience of 1 million — but shooting something of this magnitude meant recruiting a filmmaker just as big. Scorsese, who has used the Stones' music in many of his movies, agreed to the job in the autumn of 2006, just months before The Departed — which also used Stones music — was released and won him a long-deserved Oscar for Best Director. However, he quickly came to the conclusion that the Stones were making a mistake trying to give their fans an arena-sized experience, nixing plans for 3-D presentation. The Stones were about the four guys on stage — Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and Charlie Watts — and that meant a smaller venue than what was going to be found in Rio.
"The Beacon Theatre [in New York] is special for some reason," Richards says, sporting his trademark headband. "It wraps around [you], especially if you're going to play there for more than one night, and . . . the room sort of wraps its arms around you and, every night, it's warmer. [Besides], this band didn't start off in stadiums," he adds, laughing.
Scorsese, who's no stranger to music docs, having edited Woodstock and directed The Last Waltz and No Direction Home, sees it this way: "I think I'm better suited to try to capture the group on stage, on a small stage, more for the intimacy," he says. "The way you see the band work together and work each song."
Jagger laughs. "The funny thing really is that Marty, after looking at all the options, decided that he wanted to make this small, intimate movie and I said, 'Well, the laugh is, Marty, that in the end, it's going to be blown up on this huge IMAX thing,'" he says (the doc opened on the largest number of IMAX screens ever, by the way). "So the intimate moment is now shown in IMAX."
What about that exploded IMAX experience, considering the, ah, advancing age of the Stones? "The slight imperfections might be revealed," Wood says, chuckling.
More than 18 cameras, along with a collection of celebrated directors of photography, were packed into the Beacon for the big night, which also served as a fundraiser for the Clinton Foundation's efforts to bring awareness to climate change. In fact, President Bill Clinton opened for the Stones; he and Hillary are seen early in the movie. "The idea [was] to capture the spontaneity of the group, and the word capture means you have to control it," Scorsese says. "But you can't control spontaneity, so therefore, the cameras had to be in the right positions." The show was shot with 10-minute reels; extra cameras had to be available to take over while others were reloaded.
Shine a Light begins with Scorsese, desperate to discover the set list that Jagger still hasn't discerned. We're led to believe that the wait led right up until the moment the Stones hit the stage, but Scorsese admits to a little fudging. "I actually found out the set list a little earlier than that," he says. "Someone did purloin it. I'm not going to use the word stolen . . . but we found it."
"I didn't realize [directing] was such hard work, Marty," Richards says, laughing.
"The set list . . . had to really be something that they all worked out almost, I think, to the last minute," Scorsese explains. "You have to, as [Mick] says, know the room. You've got to feel the temperature of the audience. You've got to feel what's happening."
On top of the set list, there were also some other team-ups to capture, this time on stage, including super-duets with Jack White of the White Stripes, Christina Aguilera, and Buddy Guy. "[Duets] don't always work," Jagger says, "but I think everyone likes [these] duets. They really came off."
As we pointed out earlier, Scorsese is no novice when it comes to the Stones. At 65, he's pretty much the mean age of the band and grew up with their rock; as a filmmaker, their influence on him via his soundtracks continues, which has led to Jagger joking that Shine a Light is the only Scorsese movie not to feature "Gimme Shelter." Scorsese thinks he can pinpoint why, too.
"[They] remind me of when I went to see The Threepenny Opera back in 1959, 1960, and how the music affected me and what [the] play was saying," he says of the musical about working-class anti-heroes. "The lyrics were so important to me. I found I grew up in an area that was in a sense like the The Threepenny Opera, and I think the Rolling Stones' music had a similar effect on me. It deals with aspects of the life that I was growing up in, that I was associated with, or saw, or was experiencing and trying to make sense of. It was tougher, had an edge, beautiful and honest and brutal at times . . . and it's always stayed with me, and [has] become a well of inspiration to this day."
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Scorsese's devotion to the Stones and especially their longevity is evident in the way the director intercut archival news footage of the band from their first couple of decades, back when journalists would repeatedly pester them about how long they could keep rocking. More than 45 years ago, Jagger, for example, was asked how long the Stones phenomenon could continue. "I don't know," he answered. "I think we're pretty well set up for at least another year." When asked if he could picture himself at 60, still performing, he replied, rather presciently, "Yeah, easily."
Shine a Light has been called a meditation on aging, so with that in mind, we had to ask, for the sake of inanity, if the Rolling Stones think they'll still be performing when they're 70. Richards laughs at that. "That's only five years away!"
In other words, don't expect the Stones to slow down any time soon. Judging by Scorsese's energy, he won't either.