16 June, 2008

The flames rise high into the night

So here's the thing.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Shine A Light, the new film directed by Martin Scorsese, is the realisation that Scorsese hasn't made this film before. The movie is basically a concert film, recording a single live performance* by the Rolling Stones at the Beacon Theatre in New York in late 2006. And looking at Scorsese's 35-year film career, it's surprising that it has taken this long for him to film the Stones. After all, the Rolling Stones' music is an integral part both in Scorsese's life and his films, and Scorsese has real experience with concert films, having worked as an editor on the Woodstock movie, as well as directing The Last Waltz (the highly praised film of the final concert by a band I've never heard of called The Band). And now, Scorsese has finally filmed the Stones, and while you would never say that this is the culmination of his career, in a lot of ways you can tell that this is a movie he's dreamed of making all his life.

* The soundtrack CD also includes three songs recorded at a concert two nights earlier at the same venue, but none of those songs are in the film.

The film starts with a nice little arrangement of footage of the planning and preparation, both for the concert and for the film. And it's a real delight, with arrangements being made between the parties in different cities, in different countries even, no-one quite sure who made what decision. Serious concerns are expressed that the lighting for one piece might actually set fire to Mick Jagger (Scorsese unequivocably states that they cannot set Jagger on fire). Pretty much every review I have read of the film highlights the multiple scenes where Scorsese tries unsuccessfully to get a confirmed set list out of Jagger, and with good reason. It's an illuminating scene, showing the clash between a director who needs to plan, and a band that after 45 years together know how to improvise and completely alter the set list during the show itself, based on how the crowd feels. Scorsese has to plan for a wide variety of songs that could be performed, but many of which will not, categorising the different songs into "definitely perform", "will probably perform", "good chance will perform", and "may perform".

Meanwhile, the Stones come across as the old hands that they are. While it is clear that they put a lot of preparation into their concerts, they know what they're doing, and the performance tonight is just the most comfortable thing in the world. The one thing that seems to make them uncomfortable is all the schmoozing that comes with the job - they meet Bill Clinton, and then discover they'll have to come back later to meet 30 guests of Clinton, and then they have to wait for Hillary's mother to arrive late.

Meanwhile Scorsese's inability to get a setlist from the band is clearly driving him insane - at one point he seems to give up on getting a confirmed set list, or even just confirmation of which song will be played first, he just wants to know which instrument will start playing first just so he knows who to actually focus all cameras on. This all builds to a climax with the show about to start in five seconds four three two Scorsese gets the set list "First song!" and BAM with a burst of guitars the show starts.

It's impossible to actually express how thrilling that entire opening sequence was. It's brilliantly concieved and executed, and quite essential because it actually gets you in the right mood for the film. If you go to any kind of performance, the moments right before it starts are really very intense. You've had your tickets for months, you've been looking forward to this day, you've built it up so much in your mind, and finally you're actually there, it's all going to start in five minutes, and you watch your watch, and finally the scheduled start time arrives, and it passes, it was supposed to start one, two minutes ago, it could start any moment now, and finally the lights dim, you see movement on the stage, you might hear an announcement, and finally the stage lights go up and the rush, the "This is it" thrill is incredible. An ordinary filmed recording of a concert would not have that same rush of anticipation as the performance starts - you couldn't do it. And so Scorsese uses the whole buildup to the show and to the filming as a way of achieving that same excitement. Will Scorsese get a set list, will there be any last minute problems, and these concerns build up so when they reach a point five seconds from the first notes, you have that same sense of "What is going to happen? Will this work out?" It may not be the same kind of rush you would get from a live concert, but it's a pretty good approximation. So when Jumpin' Jack Flash starts, you're prepared.

Now, this is the point where I probably need to make a disclaimer. I am not a Rolling Stones fan. I'm not saying I dislike their music - I don't - it's just that, as those of you who know me will know, I'm not a big rock music person full stop. I've never really listened to the Stones, I honestly don't know them. Of all the songs performed in the film, I actually only knew two (Start Me Up and Satisfaction) and had vague recollection of having heard a third before (Sympathy For The Devil). (The soundtrack CD also included a third song, Paint It Black, that I also know, but that's not in the film.) The rest were entirely new to me. As for the band members themselves, obviously I knew who Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were (everyone knows them), but I only knew who Ronnie Wood was because he was on Top Gear recently, and I didn't know who Charlie Watts was at all. That said... Wow.

Just over a month ago, I went to see U2 3D. And I really enjoyed that film, a lot. It was a great experience, what with the spectacle of a U2 concert, and the 3D giving a real "you are there" feel to the film. Shine A Light was very different. There was no spectacle, no giant screens, no collosal arena, no over-the-top theatrics. There were just four guys in their 60s, performing in a (comparatively) small theater to a crowd of less that 3000 people.

And Shine A Light was easily better. Because shorn of any add-ons, relying solely on their performances, the Stones really are incredible entertainers. Years of the rock-and-roll lifestyle may mean some band members look even older than their actual age (and, even on an ordinary non-Imax screen, every crease, every wrinkle on Keith or Mick's face is a clearly visible crevasse), but there is no sense of age in their performance. (If anything, Jagger and Richards seem an advertisement for the life-sustaining properties of the rock-and-roll lifestyle.) It's impossible to imagine that a performance by a young Jagger would be any different to the one captured in the film. He jumps, leaps, runs, dances with a vigour and an excitement that is tiring just to watch. And the rapport between the band members is something to behold. Every now and then, you'll get a very cool moment, where the band members just see each other, and just for a moment you get these guys grinning, seemingly still amazed at how cool it is that this is how they make their living. Forty-five years these guys have been touring and playing together, and it's never grown old. And that is cool.

One of the things the film really identifies is the role of the audience in the performance - without an audience, you're just playing, but with an audience, you're performing. With the U2 film, in addition to all the footage shot during many actual concerts, they got the band to do an entire concert to an empty stadium so they could get some of the shots without intruding on the crowd's view. And the more I think about that, the more it bothers me, because it reduces the playing of a song down to a purely technical level - this note then this note, this lyric then this one. Whereas, with Shine A Light, Scorsese seems determined to prove they didn't do anything like that, ensuring that the crowd is ever present - the camera is either down at crowd level, surrounded by people watching and enjoying the show, or it's filming a performer with the audience clearly visible in the background. In fact, it's difficult to think of a shot that could have been shot in an empty theatre. And that's a great thing, because the band clearly feed off the energy in the room. They're not focused on trying to give a good performance for the camera, they're focused on entertaining the crowd. And that just gives a natural real performance that happens to be fun to watch.

But while the focus of the film is absolutely on the Stones' performance, Scorsese does some nice work in inserting the occasional piece of classic footage - mostly old interviews from the 1960s to 1980s, but there's also the odd piece of news footage. And that's interesting, just because it really drives home how long these guys have been doing this. In the most amusing footage, an impossibly young-looking Jagger expresses surprise that the band has been going a full two(!) years, and hopes that this will go on for at least another year. (Although I was rather fond of the Japanese interview from the 1980s where the female interviewer, clearly struggling to think of any questions, asks Jagger how old he is). While the clips unfortunately lack context for those of us that aren't versed in Stones history (news audiences at the time would have known the background to Mick Jagger's arrest and eventual release, but I had to look it up), it's still a nice element that makes the film less of a filmed concert, more a part of the recorded Stones history.

I think the film really benefits from having Scorsese direct it. The challenge of trying to make this film must have been phenomenal - one single concert with no retakes, trying to construct it on-the-fly to work as a film while not intruding at all on the Stones' performances or the show itself. (Jagger, worried about ruining the crowd's enjoyment, expresses doubt about even including a camera that sweeps across the crowd to the stage, although he eventually relented.) The team that he put together was phenomenal, with some of the top cinematographers operating today (including Andrew Lesnie, who shot Lord of the Rings) shooting the concert, just to make sure that the images they got from the concert were as good as possible, since they won't get a second shot. And Scorsese's input is essential - the music of the Stones is so ingrained in him that he's completely in sync with the performances - every camera move, every cut and edit, is perfectly timed to work with the music, never cutting across the song. The challenge and pressure of trying to construct a film under these constraints really seems to have stimulated Scorsese, who really delivers a movie that is not just a filmed concert, but a genuine cinematic experience.

I guess the best way to sum up the film is by returning to compare Shine A Light with the U2 3D film. And what I find is this: U2 had a lot of advantages - a lot of song familiarity on my part, a lot of concert spectacle, and the general gimmick of a 3D film. And it was enjoyable, and I do recommend it. But, even if they could replicate the 3D element on a home entertainment system, it's not a film I could see myself owning. There is something lacking from the film, a spark, and I didn't realise it until I saw Shine A Light and saw that spark of life. Because this film had all the disadvantages: I only knew a couple of songs, and the concert lacked spectacle. But you don't need that when you have a band like the Rolling Stones, a band of phenomenal charisma and performance excellence, captured in a film filled with imagination and excitement. The film is seriously a highlight of the year for me. Strongly recommended.


eT said...

Another top write-up there, Matthew.

You might also like to investigate Godard's 1968 Stones film, Sympathy For The Devil (One Plus One), which intercuts studio footage of the young, hip 'n groovy Stones recording the titular song - one of their classics - with completely separate anarchic protest clips railing against injustice and The Man. Perhaps the DVD version allows you to skip the politics and just focus on the Stones footage... but it would be quite a short film.

For a good taster of The Band, the Canadian group who achieved fame working with Bob Dylan, check out the 2003 concert film Festival Express, which strings together live festival footage from Canadian gigs in 1970. Great gig footage of The Band at their peak, plus a good deal more including a searing performance by Janis Joplin only a few weeks before her untimely death.

Matthew L said...

Thank you.

Sympathy For The Devil sounds like an interesting film. I've not seen much Godard (although I've liked what I've seen), and after looking the film up, it looks quite fascinating, so I'll definitely seek that out.

I've been meaning to see Gimme Shelter for quite a while now - from the little I know of the film and the story of what actually happened at the concert, it sounds fascinating - but never quite got around to it. But seeing Shine A Light has really reinforced my interest in seeing it.

As for The Band, I see Sky TV is actually showing The Last Waltz at the moment, so I'll probably grab a screening in the next few days.