Shine a Light, Martin Scorsese’s slick, big-budget documentary-slash-concert film on the Rolling Stones, is entertaining in an in-your-face sort of way, sticks around too long, and doesn’t have that many ideas. In other words, it’s a lot like the Rolling Stones themselves.
All the spit and polish is applied – a glut of expensive, moving, tracking, gliding, sliding cameras; a marquee director past his prime; unexpected cameo appearances from politicians and pop stars. If you’re a fan of the Rolling Stones (in the true, fainting-from-dehydration sense of the word) then the energetic, electric performance these four gods of rock and roll turn in will make you almost as high as Keith Richards on a slow day. If, like me, you’re merely a guy or gal who knows that Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie are rock deities and wants to understand the halo, then Shine a Light is, well, less than illuminating.
Scorsese does sprinkle in some well-chosen bits of archival footage – feature pieces on a smooth-skinned Richards, newsreel clips of arrests and releases, choice questions from old interviews with young reporters (to a 1964 Jagger: “Do you see yourself doing what you do at the age of 60?”). It’s fun to laugh at the predictable naivete of youth; in 1964, having performed with the Stones for two years, Jagger tells a reporter he thinks the band might last another year or so. In another excerpt, this time from a Japanese interview, the pretty reporter sitting across from Jagger is so overcome by his careless handsomeness she dissolves into uncontrollable giggles when he reveals they are both 29.
Forty years later, it is awesome to see the ravages of time on the quartet, especially the frontman and lead guitarist, and equally awesome to watch them defy age, gravity and every other immutable law of nature on the New York City Beacon Theatre stage. And occasionally, the music is more than a slap on the best-hits jukebox – “Far Away Eyes” and “Sympathy for the Devil” are both meaningful, masterful performances.
But it was the rock-version of the Temptations staple “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” that led my own imagination away from the film I was watching. We all bow before the Rolling Stones. I wonder, though, how many members of the audience for Shine a Light realize that Keith and co. rose to fame at the same time as the many Motown groups that equally defined a generation – the Temptations, yes, but also the Drifters, the Impressions, the Four Tops, the Delfonics, the Spinners and the Chi-Lites. That almost no one under forty knows by name the members of any of these groups is tantamount to musical treason, and speaks to the racial inequality (yes, I said it) that still plagues America. White America gobbled up the Motown music and then spat out the bands, relegating former superstars like Otis Williams (Temptations founder) to the B-circuit of metropolitan nightclubs and Vegas casinos – healthy paychecks, but a far cry from a Scorsese film (although Scorsese does have a thing for casinos in his other films).
So Shine a Light is a bittersweet experience: the African-American backup singers from Queens and Brooklyn, glimpsed here and there throughout the film, only serve as painful reminders of a niggling problem. With few exceptions (Ray Charles and James Brown come to mind), extraordinary black musicians continue to find their way into the Hall of Fame but not Mount Olympus. I guess I just can’t get no satisfaction from Shine a Light.