“The road has taken a lot of the great ones; Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis… It’s a goddamn impossible way of life.” This was the sentiment Robbie Robertson had left us with in Martin Scorsese’s legendary concert film, The Last Waltz. That film was all about a band that had been worn down by years of touring to the point where they needed to leave the road for good. Almost thirty years later Martin Scorsese has made a concert film about the band that has notoriously become the absolute antithesis of that sentiment: The Rolling Stones. I won’t contribute to the long list of jokes about the aging stones still playing music into their sixties, because I think those jokes are mostly unfounded. No one has any problems with much older people playing jazz, classical music, or blues; so why not rock and roll, especially when they still “bring it” as well as they do here.
The film is culled from footage taken at a pair of concerts at New York’s Beacon Theater in 2006. The show is introduced by former President Bill Clinton, whose foundation was receiving the proceeds for the show. Martin Scorsese was hired to film the event, the first such job he’s had since the aforementioned 1979 film The Last Waltz. Scorsese seemed a natural choice to direct, one can tell just from the soundtracks to his movies that he’s a huge Stones fan; after all he’s used “Gimmie Shelter” in three movies (four if you include both of the times it’s used in The Departed). Considering how well The Last Waltz turned out, and considering how good his other music documentary No Direction Home worked out, expectations were high for another gem from this cinematic master and preeminent rock fan.
The film also contains some archival footage from The Rolling Stone’s past, but make no mistake, this is a concert film and no a documentary. The archival footage is very brief and mainly exists for the purposes of transitioning between numbers. Of course this is far from the first movie to chronicle a Stones concert, of particular notoriety is the 1970 Albert and David Maysles documentary Gimmie Shelter, which depicted the botched Altamont concert which ended with the stabbing death of an audience member named Meredith Hunter. There’s nothing that dramatic to be found at this Stones show, and it also lacks any of the end of an era sentiment that added so much weight (no pun intended) to The Last Waltz. This instead documents a concert that appears to have mostly gone smoothly, so Scorsese has the challenge of making an entertaining film while simply filming a badass Stones show.
Mick and Keith are clearly older now than they were at the height of their popularity, but they still seem extremely energetic onstage. Mick Jagger in particular doesn’t seem to have slowed down a bit; he’s still an electrifying performer and dances across the stage with utter glee. The whole band sounds pretty good here, of course I wouldn’t be shocked if they used a lot of overdubbing and ADR, but they sound good in the film and that’s all that really matters. The set list covers most of the classic period of the band’s career and never wastes time with the newer tracks that the fans aren’t as excited about. The band doesn’t shy away from their “greatest hits” and happily play songs like “Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” and “Brown Sugar.” The less famous but much beloved Some Girls album also gets a workout here with “The Girl with the Far Away Eyes,” “Shattered,” and a wonderful rendition of the album’s title track.
Of course they couldn’t fit all the hits here, you won’t be hearing “Paint it Black,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Under My Thumb,” or “Street Fighting Man.” Also missing is Scorsese’s beloved “Gimmie Shelter” which would have almost been a parody of itself were it to have popped up for the fifth time in a Scorsese film. Also suspiciously missing is the title song “Shine a Light,” which only appears for a few minutes in the credits, much the way “Gimmie Shelter” only appeared in the credits of the documentary of that name.
The Stones are also joined by guests on three different songs. Jack White joins for a rendition of “Loving Cup,” I can’t say White contributes a whole lot to the song but watching him here is interesting as he seems incredibly flattered to be on stage playing with one of his idols. Christina Aguilera joins the band for “Live With Me” with less than memorable results. Finally Blues legend Buddy Guy for a cover Muddy Water’s “Champagne & Reefer,” and it’s far and away the best guest performance here. Scorsese’s filmmaking eye shows itself here as he chooses to focus his camera on Guy’s eyes during Jagger’s part of the song before Guy finally lets loose with a classic Blues vocal performance.
The Stones show a great ability to keep their show moving throughout, choosing the right songs in the right order. The only time the show slows down is when Mick leaves the stage for two songs and Keith Richards takes over for a pair of songs he fronts as well as providing the guitar licks. There’s a reason Keith hasn’t been fronting all these years, and without Mick on screen the movie suffers. One Keith song would have been perfectly acceptable, but two was overdoing it. It’s revealed shortly thereafter that Keith has been taking over so that Mick can change costumes and make an entrance on “Sympathy for the Devil,” still cutting that kind of filler out is one of the advantages concert films have over real live shows, and that tool should have been used here.
In order to film the movie Scorsese employed a dream team of Academy Award winning cinematographers lead by Robert Richardson as the camera crew as he called shot via radio. This is similar to his approach on The Last Waltz, except the set list wasn’t as rigid and it required a lot more improvisation. The result is primarily a gorgeous looking movie, the lighting and image clarity are great and the cameras are able to really get close in and photograph at just the right angles throughout the film. If there’s better looking live concert footage out there I’d love to see it.
Of course as beautiful as this looks, there are obviously better concert films out there. No matter how well Scorsese shot and edited this it’s is still going to be just another Rolling Stones show, not a cultural landmark like the Altamont show or The Band’s Last Waltz performance. Still, as average as the show may be Scorsese has managed to capture it about as well as it could possibly be captured and that’s all he ever set out to do.
***1/2 out of four