Martin Scorsese has just gotten better with age. It is safe to say most folks out there consider Marty’s best work to be behind him, way behind him. Twenty or thirty years behind him. Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas. A lot of people want to know where that Marty went. Well, those people must have been re-watching those AFI Top 100 favorites as he blew past them, continuing to make masterpiece (Gangs Of New York) after masterpiece (The Aviator), only to be rewarded for The Departed, his least interesting picture since, well, ever. For being conservative, and walking that pedestrian Hollywood line, Marty was awarded an Oscar. Now he can get back to the business of filmmaking: Witness, Shine A Light.
Shine A Light is not quite a documentary, is definitely a concert film, and is certainly a Martin Scorsese picture. It is a work that pulsates with kinetic, propulsive and infectious energy from jump street. Opening with a bit of pre-concert pre-production mayhem, the film lets the audience know right away that while the subject of the film is The Rolling Stones, the star of the picture is something else. Not the band, and not the director, but maybe the myth of the creator, of the entertainer, the performer. The Magician in all of those personalities.
The camera follows Scorsese as he meets with set designers and camera crew, the compact man making broad gestures indicating where he’d like to see lights and cameras and action. A conference call between Scorsese and Jagger is filmed using a sort of French New Wave iconography – a shot reverse shot sequence, filmed in grainy black and white, shows Scorsese and one of his team in a cramped, cluttered office talking to a speaker phone framed in extreme close-up and containing (or releasing) the gravelly voice of Mick Jagger. The two hastily argue about a set list and about camera movements before quickly agreeing, “Is that it?” (Jagger) “Yeah, that’s it” (Scorsese), without having reached any conclusions at all. The film seems to suggest that all this talk is well and good, but really amounts to nothing until it amounts to something.
When it does amount to something, when the band finally takes the stage, and when Marty, looking down from the control room, finally receives the set list, all the talking and planning and posturing go right out the window, and the show kicks into high gear in a furious rock ‘n’ roll explosion. Like a blast from the past that’s done nothing but gain momentum over four decades, The Rolling Stones explode onto the stage and onto the screen with such ferocious verve and appeal that the feeling is nothing short of electric. Never mind that these guys, The Stones and Scorsese, are all sixty-somethings, it is as if they are channeling their 60s selves into the present moment, demonstrating to the audience – both on screen and in the Arclight – exactly why they were revolutionary then and continue to be revolutionary today.
Mick Jagger (who was referred to as Mike Jagger by our poor, ignorant, and ultimately scoffed-at Arclight usher) is nothing short of a circus ringleader. He is a showman to the core, and one sees the pure pleasure he takes in being an entertainer. He simultaneously engages with the audience and controls them. Feeding off of their energy, but always manipulating them, taking them on a sonic journey that is equal parts carnal and intellectual, sexual and poetic, immediate and transcendental. On more than one occasion I caught myself watching the Rolling Stones but thinking about rappers like Kanye West and Lil Wayne, hip hoppers who are undeniably artists but make no apologies for also being consummate entertainers. While many contemporary pop rock acts get caught up in the Rock ‘N’ Roll posture, many of them forget its about the performance, not the look.
The look is what Marty brings to the table, with vivid vision. Exciting is probably the best way to describe the experience Scorsese creates for viewers. The so-called MTV aesthetic that is so often attacked by the critical establishment is turned on its head in this movie that takes the term Motion Picture to heart. Scorsese never stops moving the camera. If Jagger is rushing down the stage, Scorsese either has the camera rushing toward him or alongside him. If Keith Richards is playing a guitar solo, the camera crawls up the guitar neck, or along Richards’ own time-worn neck. In one of the many visual motifs that remind the audience that this is a film from a director who built his aesthetic in the 60s and 70s documenting a band who developed their sound in the 60s and 70s, there is no shortage of zooms in and out, whip pans, and all manner of camera work that today is frowned upon as being part of some bygone era. And it is beautiful.
Marty makes it all feel fresh and moving and relevant. Robert Richardson (Kill Bill) shot the hell out of this thing, working with a team of camera operators who have done important work in their own right as cinematographers: Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), Emmanuel Lubezki (Children Of Men), Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), John Toll (The Thin Red Line). The list literally goes on and on. It’s like an all star team of cinematographic minds. It is as if Marty said, “Okay, who has shot the most beautiful films of the last 20 years? Okay, let’s hire all of ‘em.”
The editing work, credited solely to David Tedeschi, is no less stunning. Every cut is a match on action, eyeline, a smile, a pointed finger, a lighting change, a song development, a camera move, or a dance step, or just plain ol’ breathing, shouting, clapping, stamping and dancing. The whole picture moves so well because it is edited in such a way that makes every single shot part of a unified whole. The close ups on guitar string strums, drum stick twirls, and lip curling choruses turn the viewer into museum patrons who occasionally step closer and squint at a painting, studying the details, looking for clues, looking for technique, looking for the magic. Looking for God in Man.
Shine A Light is a film that is wholly contained, even when, in the final moments of the movie, the camera exits the theater, Marty yelling at the invisible camera operator to go, “Up! Up!” And the camera does go up. Up, up and away, into the sky, resting on the New York skyline with a near-full moon looming in the background. It is the exact same shot, with the exception of time of day, that Scorsese uses for the establishing shot in Gangs Of New York. What’s it mean? I don’t know. But I liked it.