Sunday, February 01, 2009

Martin Scorcese Shines A Light On The Rolling Stones

The Last Waltz was the first Martin Scorcese movie I ever saw and Shine A Light, the Rolling Stones concert movie, has been the last Scorcese movie I've seen to date.

In The Last Waltz Scorcese presented a combination of concert film and biography of The Band's last performances before retiring from "the road" and becoming a strictly recording unit, although it really meant the end of the group as a functioning entity. Shortly thereafter the individual members went their own ways and if the Band still kind of functioned after that, it was without Robbie Robertson and then Richard Manuel and Rick Danko died.

The thing was that the guys in The Band felt that 15 years of touring was enough already. Compare that to the Rolling Stones who have been going for over 40 years and have never had enough of "the road." Mick 'n' Keef are well past 60 and still wanna rock like the young studs they once were. It should have been a lesson to The Band: maybe staying on the road keeps the group going, keeps you alive (provided you control your substance intake) and acts like and elixir of eternal youth. I guess it also helps that Rolling Stones tours are massively profitable affairs for the 4 official members of the band.

Marin Scorcese is not the first moviemaker to film the Stones doing what they do best. If you want to see the Stones on stage, you can watch Gimme Shelter, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, the DVD of performances from the Bridges to Babylon tour and the Four Flicks multi-DVD set of shows from the Forty Licks. There is actually a lot of footage of latter day live Stones, all wrinkled and desiccated, yet rockin' like demons. Perhaps Keith Richards does believe he can keep old age and death at bay by furiously riffing away in as many locations as possible.

It seems to me that since the turn of the millennium Scorcese divides his attention between "proper" movie projects and musical subjects. There is the series of documentaries about the blues under the banner "Martin Scorcese presents ..." and the No Direction Home Bob Dylan biography of the early iconoclastic years of Dylan's career. This way of going about making documentaries must be like new journalism, where you apply the methodology of making a fiction film to making a factual film. There is no reason why the documentary cannot be as arty as the fiction movie and if you can bring your own stamp to it, you edify the subject and subject matter, in the way serious writers like Norman Mailer and Truman Capote brought literary weight to journalism.

Scorcese wants to be super prepared to film a bunch of old guys rocking out on stage and his concern for finding out what the set opener will be, is almost a parody of comic fear of failure. Scorcese wants to make the best concert film ever and he cannot stand the idea of leaving part of his sphere of control to the subjects he is filming. The Rolling Stones have a huge back catalogue of songs, many hits and many obscurities and can probably play several shows without having to repeat any song, so why is it so important for Martin Scorcese to know exactly which song will open the show?

As it is, the Stones open with a hoary old warhorse, Jumping Jack Flash, and then present a set that mixes well-worn favourites with some relative obscurities, particularly favouring Some Girls and Tattoo You as their nods to the most recent work, and ignoring anything they've done since 1980. This is a festival set, in fact a charity set, and not a concert in support of a latest album so they feel no need to showcase anything the audience would not know by heart if they have been Stones fans over the past 40 plus years.

I guess I am not alone when I say that the Stones tunes I like best all stem from the Sixties and early Seventies, up to (at best) It's Only Rock'n'Roll, but the last of their albums that I truly like as a whole is Exile On Main Street. From then on there are a number of great Stones tunes but there are no studio albums where I can say I unreservedly like the entire thing. Stripped is a good album with some unusual choices in tunes, but it consists of live recordings, and that is about where I drew the line with the post-Eighties Stones. Voodoo Lounge and A Bigger Bang both have the odd decent rocker and some nice ballads but the problem for me with the listening to these albums is that it all sounds too much like the guys going through the songwriting motions of professionals who have perfected the craft part of the deal but no longer have anything left for the art part. The youthful enthusiasm and brio are long gone; all that is left is the necessity to fill up an album with tunes to comply with record company demands and to have something to tour behind so that nobody can say the Stones are nothing but a nostalgia act. The Stones no longer have to release albums of new stuff and perhaps they should not.

Shine A Light is an excellent showcase for the band in its autumn years, refusing to go quietly into that good night, and of how far it has gone in becoming part of the establishment it once eschewed and railed against. Many years ago, in the days when some people seriously held that no one over 30 should be trusted, Mick Jagger indicated that he could not quite see himself doing the pop star thing beyond that age. A few years later, when his career had been well-established and with the wisdom brought by maturity and pragmatism, Jagger used the example of bluesmen who carry on making music into their sixties and said he would want to have that kind of career. And so it became true. The Biggest Rock and Roll Band in the world can keep on rocking well beyond normal retiring age for most workers and still retain some kind of hip cool.

Of course, rock and roll is so young that nobody yet knows how long anyone can keep on rocking. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and the like had careers that stretched for 40 years or more; Elvis Presley's career got cut short but he would have been going today if he had stayed alive. It is al just show business and if the Rolling Stones could keep their brand fresh and alive through 5 decades, more power to them.

It is weird to see the wrinklies in their satin and tat jumping around on stage like very much younger men. Jagger has the body of a young dancer, not too much different to what he looked like back in the Sixties or Seventies, but the face tells a different story. Maybe he made a pact with the devil: his body will stay trim but his face deteriorates. I bet Mick Jagger uses more make up now than he did in the Seventies gender bender era. Keith Richards is also kind of thin, except for a bit of a paunch and has really freaky hear – bad hair day everyday – and his face could really use some Botox to flesh out the wrinkles. Keith was never too pretty but now resembles a bit of a mummy. Ron Wood is just thin; maybe he has an eating disorder or an extremely overactive thyroid gland. Charlie Watts has not changed much over the past twenty years. He went grey early and developed a major bald spot on the back of his head. This is pretty still the situation. Fortunately for Charlie he looked old when he was 30.

For all that, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie still rock out solidly and when they fire on all cylinders it is a thrilling ride. Close your eyes and you could be at any gig the band has played since the Seventies. The only difference would be that the sound is probably much better today than it ever was back in the day.

There are three cameo appearances, Jack White on Loving Cup, Buddy Guy on Champagne & Reefer and Christina Aguilera on Live With Me. God knows why. None of them bring much to the party and Aguilera emotes far too muck all over what is a moderately sinister tune from the Sixties heyday. She would have done much better as backing vocalist on Gimme Shelter, one of the all time great Stones tunes that did not make it to the set list. Apparently this is the first Scorcese movie that does not feature Gimme Shelter.

There aren't any real highlights among the tunes. All of them are well played and well sung, without any interesting creative spark to make them fresh or different. The Stones, and their backing musicians, are professionals who have been doing this thing and playing these songs from a very long time and they deliver a professional product that cannot be faulted for attention to detail and the overall customer satisfaction in terms of songs played and the quality of the presentation should be high. It is a big show, with big sound and big tunes that have been part of our musical history and cultural education for so long they might as well be pre-historic. For most of us the Rolling Stones have always been there, astride the world like a rock and roll colossus and it is sad to think that the evidence of Shine A Light will mostly serve to prove only that you can rock until you are almost dead, but that getting better at it does not mean you are more vital or interesting, except as a bit of a curiosity.

I walked out of the theatre really stoked. This was as close to a live Stones concert as I would ever come, but when I got home I sought Hot Rocks 1 and 2 and Exile On Main Street, and immersed myself in Stones music in the versions that originally won me over and meant something to me. These are the versions I will listen to over and over because they are performed by the young men who turned rebellion into money and made good, solid, satisfying rock along the way, most of them classics that will forever define a particular zeitgeist and also define what rock should be in its rawest primal form. Of course I am biased in my opinion. I like the blues and I like what the Stones have done with infusing their rock with blues without adulterating the one or stultifying the other and for my money, you cannot really make good rock music if you do not fuse the two. This opinion may also make me sound like a relic from a bygone era who has no idea of what informs current rock and who no longer has any clue, and that is alright. I am no longer a teenager and I do not have to like or understand the stuff teenagers listen to nowadays.

The thing is: how many of today's bands will still be with us in 40 years time, going as strong as ever? Maybe the paradigm has changed and maybe rock is no longer so brand strong that anything has to last beyond the initial success and maybe the Internet will kill rock as we know it, but I know this: there has never been anybody like the Rolling Stones and there never will be again. They made records in the days when rock music was really important because it was still in its infancy and rebellion seemed real. Now it is all either corporate or independent and Internet fuelled and making money is the chief objective.

Very little matters in music anymore. There is too much of it, too many genres, too many artists, too many merely technically excellent albums.

One should ask this rhetorical question: of today's big bands or artists, how many will be the subject of a Martin Scorcese movie? Okay, I know he is of a certain age and will prefer acts from his youth, but if there is major movie maker who embraces the idea of making a documentary about a big act, which of today's big guns will be chosen? Are there even big guns amongst us anymore?

The Rolling Stones have become older and have carried on for far longer than they or anybody else would have imagined but for all that their light shines strongly and brightly and still illuminates our lives far better than any alternative currently available.


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